LIMA (Reuters) - Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra’s drive to clean up the ruling class after a series of graft scandals has left the South American country with an open rebellion in a dissolved Congress as its political crisis takes a dramatic turn into the unknown.
Vizcarra dissolved the single-chamber body this week and scheduled new legislative elections for Jan. 26, invoking a rarely-used presidential power that also forced him to dismiss his entire Cabinet.
In response, dozens of dismissed lawmakers with the right-wing opposition branded him a “dictator” and refused to leave Congress, pitching Peru into its worst political crisis since democracy was restored at the turn of the century.
A group of former lawmakers even tried to install Vizcarra’s second-in-command as an interim president, in a bizarre ceremony inside the dissolved Congress as protesters agitated outside. The bid failed when Vice President Mercedes Araoz abruptly renounced any claim to the presidency on Tuesday.
All eyes are now on the country’s top court, the Constitutional Tribunal, to settle the dispute, with Vizcarra’s legitimacy as president on the line.
It was a massive uproar over government graft that drove Peru’s former authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori from his decade-long grip on power in 2000. While Fujimori has since been imprisoned, widespread corruption has not gone away.
In 2017, graft was thrust back into the center of national politics when Brazilian builder Odebrecht promised to help Peruvian authorities prosecute high-ranking officials it admitted to having bribed for over a decade.
Ensuing criminal probes have since ensnared the country’s four most recent presidents, scores of businessmen, judges, prosecutors and lawmakers. One former president, Alan Garcia, killed himself to avoid arrest this year.
Another is fighting extradition from the United States. A third is awaiting trial in Peru. Vizcarra replaced a fourth former president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, after he resigned to avoid impeachment over alleged corruption last year.
Opposition leader Keiko Fujimori has been jailed ahead of trial in connection with Odebrecht, discrediting the political party she leads that controls Congress.
VIZCARRA’s REFORM DRIVE
The former governor of a copper-mining region, Vizcarra was a last-minute addition to the No. 2 spot on Kuczynski’s presidential ticket to help appeal to voters outside the Peruvian capital, according to a former ruling party lawmaker Carlos Bruce.
Little-known when he took office, Vizcarra has surprised many by aggressively pushing reforms aimed at ending entrenched graft. He says structural change to the country’s political and judicial systems is urgently needed to shore up trust in discredited institutions.
Due to term limits, Vizcarra cannot run for re-election in 2021, when Peru will celebrate its first general elections since the Odebrecht scandal broke. With most major parties now discredited, some analysts say anti-establishment candidates will have a better chance of sweeping to power.
The opposition has accused Vizcarra of seizing on anger over corruption to orchestrate a power grab, charging without evidence that he was trying to install a dictatorship in the style of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
But Vizcarra, a cool-headed centrist leader, has managed to push ambitious legislation through a Congress where the ruling party has just a handful of seats.
In one act underscoring his toughness, he also pressured a former attorney general to step down after two celebrated prosecutors were removed from the Odebrecht probe.
Dismissed opposition lawmakers say Vizcarra made illegal use a rarely-employed presidential power to close Congress.
There has been no official ruling in that regard, but under Peru’s constitution, which was passed under Fujimori in 1993, presidents can dissolve Congress if the body delivers two majority votes of no-confidence over proposed policies.
Dismissed lawmakers had already withdrawn their confidence in the government once.
Vizcarra has the backing of the military and police, as well as ordinary Peruvians, thousands of whom have taken to the streets in recent days in a show of support.
Vice President Mercedes Araoz’s unexpected announcement that she was renouncing her claim to the presidency on Tuesday was a major blow to rebel former lawmakers who had pledged their allegiance to her a day earlier.
The opposition is now pushing Vizcarra to resign and call new general elections.
Vizcarra’s new prime minister, Vicente Zeballos, said on Wednesday that it was too late to call for a snap general election. Even if he wanted to, Vizcarra cannot step down because there was no longer a president of Congress to whom he could submit his resignation.
Peru’s electoral board announced it had started proceedings for legislative elections, however, in a sign Peruvian institutions were moving on without the opposition.
Reporting by Mitra Taj; Editing by Tom Brown