If two-thirds of the 130-member Congress approve the impeachment motion, the popular anticorruption centrist will be immediately removed from office.
But the push to oust him is being criticized by constitutional experts and democracy activists, who see a rush to judgment, violating due process on vague charges.
“The situation with the pandemic is really serious right now,” said Samuel Rotta, who heads the Peruvian branch of the anti-corruption group Transparency International. “The last thing Peruvians need is this slap in the face.”
Vizcarra remains popular. Despite complaints that he has mishandled the country’s coronavirus outbreak, recent polls show he retains the support of a majority of Peruvians.
Peru has reported more than 738,020 coronavirus cases, the fifth most in the world. Its cumulative death rate of 95 per 100,000 people is the worst of any nation.
Rotta said the recordings are ambiguous. “The president owes us an explanation,” he said. “But these recordings are a matter for prosecutors to look at once he is no longer in office.”
Critics have questioned the lawmakers’ motives seven months ahead of general elections. Diego García-Sayán, a former justice minister and former president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, described them as “wannabe coup-mongers.”
The government says several members of Congress have requested that the elections be pushed back by two years as the country grapples with the coronavirus.
The head of the congressional oversight committee, Edgar Alarcón, who released the tapes, represents the small extremist Union for Peru party, led by Antauro Humala, the jailed brother of former president Ollanta Humala, and could be facing prosecution himself when his parliamentary immunity expires in July.
Alarcón resigned as comptroller general in 2017 amid claims of corruption, including falsifying his accounting degree, nepotism and profiting from his official position.
Prosecutors have charged him with crimes including embezzlement and “illicit enrichment”; they’re asking he be sentenced to 17 years in prison. Were it not for his parliamentary immunity, Alarcón might already be in pretrial detention.
Antauro Humala, meanwhile, is serving a 25-year sentence for leading a military uprising against the elected government of President Alejandro Toledo in 2005. He has called for corrupt officials to be summarily shot. His party has repeatedly pushed for his liberation.
The tapes also capture Vizcarra’s secretary, Karem Roca, talking with other members of the president’s team. In some, Roca claims that Vizcarra directed anticorruption prosecutors, including chief prosecutor Zoraida Ávalos, to target his political opponents.
García-Sayán, who serves as the U.N. special rapporteur on judicial independence, dismissed those claims as “uninformed rumors.” “There is nothing inappropriate about the president meeting the chief prosecutor,” he said. “What is clear is that the president’s team is made up of people with mean motives, and he did not choose them well.”
Because Peru currently has no vice president — Vizcarra stepped up from the role to become president in 2017 — Merino is next in line to lead the country.
The speaker apologized after it emerged over the weekend that he had contacted the heads of the armed forces before the impeachment motion was even drafted. The officers reported the contact to the defense minister. Some here are describing Merino’s conduct as “sedition.”
The government has appealed to the constitutional court to suspend the impeachment vote and clarify the meaning of “moral incapacity,” the accusation leveled against Vizcarra. The term has appeared in Peruvian constitutions since 1834 but has never been clearly defined. Constitutional experts say it was originally intended to cover physical and mental infirmity, not misconduct.
Peru’s current cohort of lawmakers was elected in January to complete the five-year congressional period after Vizcarra used an extreme constitutional mechanism to dissolve the previous parliament for resisting his anticorruption agenda. Many had hoped the special election would usher in a new dawn of badly needed political and judicial reforms.
Peru’s four previous presidents were implicated in Latin America’s extensive Odebrecht scandal.