LIMA (Reuters) - Peru’s armed forces and police reaffirmed allegiance to President Martin Vizcarra late on Monday after his move to close Congress prompted dozens of dismissed lawmakers to pledge loyalty to vice president in a deepening political standoff.
Earlier in the day, Vizcarra scheduled new legislative elections for January 26 to end a yearlong feud with the current Congress, accusing the rightwing opposition of using anti-democratic tactics to block his efforts to stamp out corruption.
The closure of Congress has widespread support in Peru, where lawmakers are some of the most despised officials after an eruption of graft scandals in recent years have eroded trust in political parties and institutions.
But dozens of members of the opposition called it a “coup” and refused to leave Congress. As protesters gathered at the building in downtown Lima to pressure them to leave, dismissed lawmakers sang the national anthem inside in a ceremony to declare Vice President Mercedes Araoz the interim president.
Some Peruvians worry that the crisis could lead to a protracted legal battle over the constitutional grounds of the rarely-used maneuver, or even potential clashes if authorities move in to remove lawmakers by force.
Peru’s top military brass visited Vizcarra at the presidential palace late in the evening. The police and the joint command of the army, navy and air forces reaffirmed they recognized Vizcarra as president and commander in-chief in separate statements afterward.
The political crisis coincides with a sharp slowdown in the growth of Peru’s mining-powered economy amid a U.S.-China trade war. It was one of the worst crises since the turn of the century, when former authoritarian leader Alberto Fujimori fled Peru and resigned by fax from his parents’ native Japan.
Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko Fujimori, is the jailed leader of the opposition majority party in the dismissed Congress. Like four of Peru’s most recent presidents, Fujimori has been ensnared in graft probes involving Brazilian builder Odebrecht. All deny wrongdoing.
Vizcarra accused the opposition of trying to use Congress and the courts to shield themselves from ongoing criminal probes.
“The parliamentary majority resorts to innumerable arguments and tricks, destined to harm not just government but society as a whole,” Vizcarra told the country in a televised address.
Vizcarra said the last straw was Congress’ appointment of a new justice to the Constitutional Tribunal (TC) on Monday, which he said counted as a second vote of no-confidence and thus grounds for a constitutional dissolution of Congress.
Congress’ proposed nominees for the TC had come under fire for their links to judges ensnared in a graft scandal. The court could soon be a referee in a legal dispute between dismissed lawmakers and the government.
Lawmakers said Vizcarra had overstepped constitutional limits by overriding Congress’ authority to appoint TC justices, and vowed to challenge him in local and international court.
Reporting by Mitra Taj, Maria Cervantes and Marco Aquino; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Clarence Fernandez, William Maclean