Peru was plunged into political chaos on Sunday as interim leader Manuel Merino resigned after just five days in office, following big nationwide demonstrations and a police crackdown which killed at least two people and injured more than 100.
Mr Merino announced his departure only minutes after Luis Valdez, the head of congress, said politicians of all parties had agreed to call for the president’s resignation to save lives and restore order. Demonstrators immediately chanted and honked horns to celebrate the news.
Anger had boiled over after police fired tear gas and shotgun pellets at crowds on Saturday night in an attempt to quell demonstrations against Mr Merino, who came to power last Monday after impeaching his popular predecessor Martín Vizcarra.
Human rights groups accused the authorities of using excessive and unjustified force. More than 40 people were still reported missing on Sunday morning. “We are continuing to document cases of police brutality in the centre of Lima,” tweeted José Miguel Vivanco, head of Human Rights Watch Americas. “Everything suggests that repression against peaceful demonstrators is intensifying.”
The violence prompted politicians, business leaders and prominent Peruvians to demand that Mr Merino step down. The interim leader disappeared from view after Saturday’s demonstrations and Peru’s RPP Noticias radio said military and police chiefs failed to attend a meeting he had called on Sunday morning.
Peru now faces the prospect of a fourth president in less than three years, who will have try hold the country together until elections in April. Congress was due to agree on a successor to Mr Merino later on Sunday.
“The situation is very fragile and the crisis will continue for some time to come,” said Luis Nunes, a political analyst in Lima, noting Peruvians’ anger at the entire political class. “The people are saying they want them all to go: that’s a nice phrase but it doesn’t mean anything. Someone needs to run the country.”
The latest crisis began when congress used an arcane 19th century law to remove Mr Vizcarra on unproven charges that he took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes while a state governor in 2011-14. Legislators replaced him with Mr Merino, a little-known politician and rice farmer who was the leader of congress.
Many Peruvians described the move as a parliamentary coup, saying that lawmakers, many of whom are themselves under investigation for corruption and other crimes, were mainly motivated by a desire to protect themselves.
Angry demonstrations erupted across the country against the impeachment and clashes between protesters and security forces turned increasingly violent. After Saturday night’s bloodshed, most members of Mr Merino’s newly appointed cabinet resigned and his position became untenable.
“Two young people have been sacrificed absurdly, stupidly, unjustly by the police,” said Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s Nobel Prize-winning author, in a video posted on social media. “It’s essential that this repression ceases.” He called for Mr Merino to be replaced with an independent politician who was not associated with Mr Vizcarra’s impeachment.
Compounding the problem is Peru’s coronavirus crisis. Mr Vizcarra imposed one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns in mid-March. This devastated the economy, triggering a 30 per cent contraction in gross domestic product in the second quarter, but failed to prevent soaring death tolls.
Peru now has the world’s second-highest virus mortality per capita after Belgium, according to Johns Hopkins University figures. The IMF predicts a 13.9 per cent collapse in Peru’s GDP this year, among the worst performance of any emerging market economy.
As in other Latin American nations, the virus emergency exposed the weakness of public health systems and the difficulties of extending a social safety net to the high proportion of the workforce who operate in the informal economy.
Peru faces presidential and parliamentary elections in April in which populist candidates from the left and the right are expected to perform strongly. George Forsyth, a former football player and mayor of a Lima suburb without a strong party affiliation, currently tops polls with an anti-crime message.