Peru’s interim president, Manuel Merino, has resigned less than a week into his new administration, after a night of protests calling for his removal and a subsequent police crackdown left at least two dead and dozens wounded.
The latest political shake-up comes as Peru battles the coronavirus pandemic and what is expected to be its worst economic contraction in a century.
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People poured into the streets to celebrate Merino’s departure on Sunday, waving flags, chanting and banging pots, although the news plunges Peru deeper into uncertainty and legal disarray as legislators now wrestle over who will take his place.
Congress is expected to hold a second vote in the evening after a first vote failed to garner majority support for left-wing legislator and human rights defender Rocio Silva-Santisteban to be designated interim president.
A tense calm prevailed in the capital, Lima, as Peruvians awaited a decision on who the next president would be.
“Merino has resigned because his hands are stained with blood, with the blood of our children,” said Clarisa Gomez, one of those who turned out to celebrate Merino’s departure, while adding that the legislators who put him in power should also pay.
The opposition-dominated Congress voted last Monday to remove Merino’s predecessor Martin Vizcarra as president, over bribery accusations which he denies.
In a televised speech, Merino, the former head of Congress who had led the push to impeach Vizcarra, asked his cabinet to stay on to help in the transition.
“I want to let the whole country know that I’m resigning,” Merino said in Sunday’s address. He added the move was “irrevocable” and called for “peace and unity”.
Merino’s resignation followed a groundswell of politicians urging him to step down, citing the violence against the country’s citizens.
The current head of Congress, Luis Valdez said earlier on Sunday that all of the legislature’s political parties had agreed to ask for the “immediate” resignation.
“We should put above all else the lives of the Peruvian people,” said Valdez, who himself plans to resign.
Valdez had said the legislature would begin an impeachment process if Merino did not willingly leave office.
Since Merino’s rise to power, thousands in Peru had staged some of the largest protests in decades, accusing the legislature of staging a parliamentary coup. The unrest had been largely peaceful until Saturday night, with Peru’s Ombudsman warning on Twitter late on Saturday that security forces had begun “misusing force and throwing tear gas without justification” against young protesters who had gathered in the centre of the capital city of Lima.
Two young protesters were killed in clashes, the public ombudsman said, while state medical programme EsSalud confirmed in a statement that two men had died from gunshot wounds.
Authorities identified the dead as Jack Pintado, 22, who was shot 11 times, including in the head, and Jordan Sotelo, 24, who was hit four times in the thorax near his heart.
Peru’s National Human Rights coordinator said 112 people were injured, some by inhaling tear gas, with 41 missing. At least nine had gunshot wounds, health officials said.
Vizcarra blamed the violence on repression by Merino’s “illegal and illegitimate government”.
“The country will not allow the deaths of these brave young men to go unpunished,” Vizcarra wrote on Twitter.
He also warned Peruvians not to let legislators once again determine who Peru’s next leader would be.
“Should those who took these unconstitutional measures be the ones who bring us a solution?” he asked reporters outside his home after Merino’s resignation on Sunday.
Instead, he wanted Peru’s Constitutional Court to weigh in immediately on whether his own impeachment had been legal. Soon after, the court said it would move to Monday a hearing set for Wednesday to fast-track arguments in the case.
“I am here to collaborate,” said Vizcarra, a politically unaffiliated centrist popular with Peruvians, who has yet to be found guilty of the corruption charges that led to his removal.
Congress kicked Vizcarra out using a clause dating back to the 19th century that allows the powerful legislature to remove a president for “permanent moral incapacity”. Legislators accused Vizcarra of taking more than $630,000 in bribes in exchange for two construction contracts while governor of a small province years ago.
Prosecutors are investigating the allegations but Vizcarra has not been charged. A judge barred him from leaving the country for 18 months on Friday.
Meanwhile, Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa condemned the violence in a video posted on Twitter.
“Two young people were absurdly, stupidly, unjustly sacrificed by the police,” he said. “This repression – which is against all of Peru – needs to stop.”