For millions of Peruvians, particularly the young, Merino had become the face of a corrupt political class that has entrenched itself in Congress and sought to stop Vizcarra’s attempts to end their careers through sweeping changes. The mass protests that forced Merino to step down were less about defending Vizcarra than expressing public outrage at the political forces that had removed him.
In a brief televised speech, Merino said his de facto cabinet would continue while Congress worked to name a new president. But it was unclear who he was talking about; at least 11 ministers, including the heads of the ministries of interior, justice, trade, and energy and mines, announced their resignations, some on Twitter, overnight.
Peru has been in turmoil since the scandal-racked Congress removed Vizcarra on Nov. 9 over unproven claims that he accepted bribes when he was a regional governor. Vizcarra is widely seen here as a reformer; he has denied wrongdoing and has said consistently that he will cooperate fully with prosecutors. On Saturday, a judge ordered him not to leave the country.
Two demonstrators were killed and scores were injured Saturday night as officers in riot gear used tear gas and other means to attempt to quell largely peaceful protests in Lima, the capital, and other cities across the Andean nation.
Amnesty International counted 94 injured and 41 disappeared, who were thought to have been arrested, including by undercover police snatching individuals from the protests. The group accused the police of human rights abuses including using “tear gas, buckshot and other firearms.”
Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa added his voice to the storm of criticism of the Merino administration’s tactics, accusing the police of “absurdly, stupidly, unjustly” attacking protesters. “It’s indispensable that this repression stops, this repression which is against all of Peru because all of Peru is protesting,” he said in a video tweeted by his daughter.
The political chaos has unfolded as Peru struggles against one of the world’s most lethal coronavirus outbreaks. The country has reported more than 934,000 cases and 35,000 deaths from covid-19.
Merino, the former head of Congress, was inaugurated on Tuesday. But his position became increasingly untenable amid a near-universal refusal, both within Peru and internationally, to recognize him as the country’s constitutional head of government.
“Merino’s brazen power play was doomed from the start,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. “In the end, the streets forced his ouster. Peruvians, especially the young, wouldn’t tolerate the shenanigans and corruption that resulted in the congressional coup against Vizcarra.”
Like his cabinet, made up largely of aging far-right politicians, Merino had appeared incapable of comprehending the fury of the protesters — many of them millennials or younger in a country where the median age is just 31 — or their chant of “They messed with the wrong generation.”
Education Minister Fernando D’Alessio, 76, had dismissed the demonstrators as being terrorist sympathizers. Merino’s prime minister, Antero Florez-Araoz, 78, a former defense minister known for sexist and racist outbursts, had said he would consult “sociologists” to find out what was motivating the protests.
Those who avoided acknowledging Merino as president or called on him to step down included the European Union, the Organization of American States, the archbishop of Lima, the mayor of Lima — from Merino’s own centrist Popular Action party — and Peru’s association of governors. Several senior functionaries, including doctors on the country’s coronavirus task force, resigned from the government.
Merino had vowed to remain in office. But as protests mounted, he relented on Sunday. Before his resignation speech, his whereabouts had been a mystery amid a growing power vacuum.
It was unclear Sunday who would replace him. Next in line would be the new speaker of Congress, Luis Valdez, who took that position from Merino when Merino became president. But there was talk Sunday of the new president being one of the lawmakers who opposed the ouster, including from the small, progressive Purple Party, whose nine members voted as a bloc against removing Vizcarra.
Meanwhile, attention focused on the constitutional court. It’s due to give a ruling in the next few weeks defining “moral incapacity,” the vague 18th-century term used to justify Vizcarra’s firing. Legal experts say it was intended to apply to infirmity, not misconduct.
The court has said its rulings are not retroactive. But its members might want to save face after refusing to consider a request last month from the Vizcarra administration for an emergency protective measure to stop the Congress from removing Vizcarra in violation of the constitution.
At the time, the court’s president, Marianella Ledesma, said the political danger to Vizcarra had receded, making such a measure unnecessary. Meanwhile, the OAS has urged the court to clarify the legality of Vizcarra’s ouster. Vizcarra’s lawyer says the former president could be reinstated.
Vizcarra, speaking to journalists outside his Lima home on Sunday, called Merino a “wannabe dictator” and welcomed his departure. “The generation who the traditional politicians have looked down on, it is they who have generated the real change,” he said.
Vizcarra remains popular for his anti-corruption crusading. Polls show that 4 out of 5 Peruvians opposed his ouster. A similar majority favored prosecutors investigating him, but only once he left office. He was due to step down at the end of his term next July.
The final straw for Merino might have been when the heads of Peru’s armed forces refused to attend an emergency meeting he had called in the presidential palace early Sunday.
Vizcarra’s ouster has been widely interpreted as an attempt by a corrupt political class to stop his policy changes that threatened their grip on power — and their ability to monetize that power through kickbacks, influence-peddling and populist legislation that favored shadowy economic interests including illegal mining and the informal taxis and minibuses that help make Peru’s roads so lethal.
Arturo Maldonado, a political scientist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, said the legislators’ high-stakes gamble in replacing Vizcarra with Merino might have reflected “desperation.”
Laws that Vizcarra passed in the teeth of congressional resistance included banning candidates with convictions from running for office and ending consecutive reelection for members of Congress. He was trying to curb the parliamentary immunity that has allowed 68 of the 130 lawmakers to hang on to their jobs despite being the targets of criminal investigations for offenses ranging from asset-laundering to homicide.
On Friday, legislators moved to weaken SUNEDU, the regulator of Peru’s universities, which has denied licenses to many lucrative but low-quality schools associated with the politicians who led the campaign to bring down Vizcarra.
Congress is in the process of replacing six of the seven members of the constitutional court. Critics including Vizcarra have accused lawmakers of a rushed, irregular selection process apparently aimed at stacking a body that often has the final voice in key policy battles.
Peru’s Congress is notoriously splintered, with lawmakers from nine different parties, and another 15 parties set to join next year, just as the electorate appears in a mood for major change. Those that get less than 5 percent of the popular vote lose their registration as a party.
The lawmakers’ apparent error in judgment in ousting Vizcarra and installing Merino might have been shaped by the lack, until now, of mass protests of the sort that have shaken neighboring Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador, despite similarly widespread discontent with the political establishment here.
“The members of Congress had a short window to save their corrupt interests, including reversing the education reforms,” Maldonado said. “They miscalculated that the pandemic would mean that people would only protest online and not take to the streets. Obviously, they made a mistake.”
Anthony Faiola in Miami contributed to this report.