But influential voices backed Vizcarra’s move. The police and military said Vizcarra remained their “supreme commander,” the Organization of American States offered qualified backing and demonstrators outside the Legislative Palace chanted their support.
Recent polls have found that more than 70 percent of Peruvians, weary of partisan bickering and endless scandal, favored the president shutting Congress down.
In a televised address, Vizcarra said the lawmakers’ behavior underlined “the shamelessness into which the parliamentary majority has fallen, completely divorced from the will of the Peruvian people.”
At issue is Vizcarra’s anti-corruption crusade, after Peru’s four previous presidents were implicated in Latin America’s massive Odebrecht scandal. The opposition-controlled Congress has resisted his efforts.
On Monday, lawmakers planned to elect new constitutional court judges from a list of 10 candidates, several of whom are allegedly linked to corruption or face unresolved criminal accusations themselves. Among the items on the court’s agenda: A habeas corpus petition seeking the release of jailed opposition leader Keiko Fujimori.
Vizcarra attempted to head that off by calling for a vote of confidence in his government, a move that would allow him to dissolve the Congress. When lawmakers took up the judicial nominees instead, Vizcarra decided their conduct amounted to a rejection of the vote of confidence, enabling him to send them packing and schedule new legislative elections for Jan. 26.
Some lawmakers refused to leave their seats, even as protesters gathered outside. They introduced a motion to impeach the president; when it became clear that they lacked the necessary supermajority, they voted instead to suspend him on the supposed grounds of incapacity, a constitutional maneuver intended for medical emergencies.
They then voted to install Vizcarra’s estranged vice president in his place. Mercedes Aráoz called accepting the job “one of the saddest decisions” of her life.
The political crisis comes at a key moment in Peru’s struggle with corruption.
Odebrecht executives are due this week to reveal the identities of more than 70 Peruvian “code names,” mainly members of Congress who received bribes or illegal campaign funding from the Brazilian construction giant.
There’s also the court ruling on Fujimori, the Fuerza Popular leader and daughter of imprisoned former president Alberto Fujimori. Several members of her party also face criminal exposure for unrelated corruption allegations.
Law professor Walter Albán, a former head of the Peruvian chapter of the anti-corruption group Transparency International, was dismissive of the congressional holdouts.
“It’s a temper tantrum. It has no legal validity,” Albán said. “It was to be expected, given that many of them are facing the loss of their parliamentary immunity. But they have no chance of hanging on to power.”
Marisa Glave, a lawmaker from the small leftist New Peru party, backed Vizcarra’s move.
“Actually, what has happened is that we have avoided a coup, a coup against the constitutional court and the president,” she said. “With this dissolution, President Vizcarra has returned the power to the people.”
Police surrounded the shuttered Legislative Palace on Tuesday morning and were allowing only a small number of congressional workers through. Some Fuerza Popular lawmakers also entered, to the heckling of a small crowd of pro-Vizcarra demonstrators.
Given the splintered nature of Peruvian politics and the weakness of its parties, the results of January’s elections remain deeply uncertain. But Fuerza Popular probably faces steep losses.
Glave warned that Peruvians need to remain on their guard.
“These corrupt mafias still exist, and they still have their tentacles not just in politics but in many other institutions, including the judiciary,” she said. “Of course, they will try to fight back.”