Peru's 'Mechita,' the rebel lawmaker who was 'president' for a day

LIMA (Reuters) - In a hasty ceremony on Monday, rebel lawmakers swore in Vice President Mercedes Araoz as Peru’s interim leader, looking to install her in place of President Martin Vizcarra after he moved to dissolve Congress to end a long-running political stand-off.

FILE PHOTO: Peruvian Vice President Mercedes Araoz speaks to Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan (not pictured) during their meeting at Zhongnanhai in Beijing, China September 2, 2019. Andrea Verdelli/Pool via REUTERS

On Tuesday night, Araoz abruptly renounced her claim after a public outcry in which military leaders rallied around Vizcarra, who has pushed anti-corruption reforms in defiance of the opposition-controlled Congress.

The bizarre episode - which meant the South American nation briefly had two rival claimants to the presidency - was the latest twist in Peru’s worst constitutional crisis in decades, as Vizcarra and lawmakers have jostled for power.

Araoz’s step-down marked a major blow for the opposition. They had declared Vizcarra suspended on the grounds he had violated the constitution in his push to strong-arm lawmakers into backing his anti-graft proposals.

In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, shortly before announcing her resignation, Araoz, known in Peru as ‘Mechita’ - a diminutive of ‘Mercedes’ – suggested she had accepted the interim role only as a “political act” rather than a power grab.

She said she knew the move would put her political standing in jeopardy.

“Today a large part of the country hates me. I understand their grief,” Araoz told Reuters at her apartment overlooking a large garden in the capital district of Miraflores. “We clearly had a terrible Congress. But that’s no reason to close it.”

The move had stoked tensions, with street protests in support of Vizcarra, while lawmakers had holed up in Congress refusing to leave.

Araoz said she no longer recognized the centrist Vizcarra as president but hoped she could still help mediate a dispute between him and members of the right-wing opposition who have deemed him a “dictator.”

“What I’ll do is try to find consensus,” said Araoz, who now works from her apartment after being barred from Congress.

Vizcarra has said he had no choice but to invoke a nuclear option in Peru’s constitution to call new legislative elections, saying he preferred to let voters weigh in on his year-long push to get Congress to pass his anti-graft reforms.

Graft scandals have tainted judges, lawmakers and four former presidents in recent years, and the opposition-run Congress has emerged as one of Peru’s most unpopular institutions.

Araoz said she would accept any ruling by Peru’s top Constitutional Court on the legality of Vizcarra’s move to dissolve Congress and called on him to do the same.

The lawmaker, who ran a failed presidential bid in 2011, told Reuters she would “love to” sit down with Vizcarra and the recently-dismissed head of Congress to work out differences.

“I’d be satisfied with that,” she said.

Reporting by Marco Aquino; Writing by Mitra Taj; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O’Brien