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Peru swears in new leader after president ousted amid constitutional crisis

Peruvian President Pedro Castillo (AP Photo/Martin Mejia, File)
Peruvian President Pedro Castillo (AP Photo/Martin Mejia, File)

Peru’s Congress has removed President Pedro Castillo from office and replaced him with the vice president, shortly after Mr Castillo decreed the dissolution of the legislature ahead of a scheduled vote to oust him.

The national ombudsman’s office, the Constitutional Tribunal and the Supreme Court called his move to dissolve Congress a coup, although at least one expert disagreed.

Peru’s Congress has the ability to remove the president and the president has the ability to dissolve Congress, so “technically, it is not a coup”, said Eduardo Gamarra, a political science and international relations professor at Florida International University.

“The confusion is in the 15,000 interpretations that exist about who prevails, the Congress or the president,” he said. The one who wins will be the one with more power, he said.

Legislators voted 101-6 with 10 abstentions to remove Mr Castillo from office for reasons of “permanent moral incapacity”.

Mr Castillo left the presidential palace in a vehicle that carried him through central Lima and later entered a police station, where his status was not immediately clear. In a photograph circulated by the national police on Twitter, which was later deleted, Mr Castillo was seated inside the station surrounded by officers.

Peru President Congress
Pedro Castillo, second left, inside a police station in Lima (Peru’s police administration office/AP)

Shortly before the vote, Mr Castillo announced he was installing a new emergency government and called for the next round of legislators to develop a new constitution for the Andean nation. He said during a televised address that he would rule by decree until then, and ordered a nightly curfew starting on Wednesday night.

He also announced that he would make changes in the leadership of the judiciary, the police and the constitutional court. The head of Peru’s army then resigned, along with four ministers, including those for foreign affairs and the economy.

Mr Castillo took action as his opponents in Congress moved towards a third attempt to remove him from office.

The Ombudsman’s Office, an autonomous government institution, said before the congressional vote that he should resign and turn himself in to judicial authorities. After years of democracy, Peru is in the midst of a constitutional collapse “that can’t be called anything but a coup”, the statement said.

“Mr Castillo must remember that he was not only elected president of the republic, but also that the people elected representatives for public service,” the statement said. “Castillo’s actions ignore the will of the people and are invalid.”

The congressional vote called for vice president Dina Boluarte to assume the presidency. She rejected Mr Castillo’s move, saying it “worsens the political and institutional crisis that Peruvian society will have to overcome with strict adherence to the law”.

Peru President Congress
Dina Boluarte acknowledges lawmakers after being sworn in (Guadalupe Pardo/AP)

Ms Boluarte, a 60-year-old lawyer, is the first woman to reach the presidency in Peru’s more than 200 years as an independent republic. Bilingual in Spanish and Quechua, she was on the same ticket when voters chose Mr Castillo in July 2021, and also served as minister of development and social inclusion.

Peru’s Joint Chiefs and National Police rejected the constitutionality of Mr Castillo’s dissolution of Congress in a statement.

Mexico’s foreign affairs minister Marcelo Ebrard said Mexico had decided to postpone the Pacific Alliance summit scheduled for December 14 in Lima. He said he regretted the recent developments and called for democracy and human rights to be respected.

The administration of Chilean President Gabriel Boric lamented the situation in Peru and trusted that the crisis would be resolved through democratic mechanisms.

Spain’s government strongly condemned the break in constitutional order and congratulated the country on righting itself democratically.

Mr Castillo had said in an unusual midnight address on state television ahead of the vote that he would never stain “the good name of my honest and exemplary parents, who like millions of Peruvians, work every day to build honestly a future for their families”.

The peasant-turned-president said he is paying for mistakes made due to inexperience, but a certain sector of Congress “has as its only agenda item removing me from office because they never accepted the results of an election that you, my dear Peruvians, determined with your votes”.

Peru President Congress
Legislators celebrate after voting to remove Pedro Castillo from office (Guadalupe Pardo/AP)

Mr Castillo, whose government began in July 2021, denied allegations of corruption against him, saying they are based on “hearsay statements by people who, seeking to lighten their own punishments for supposed crimes by abusing my confidence, are trying to involve me without evidence”.

Federal prosecutors are investigating six cases against him, most for alleged corruption, under the theory that he has used his power to profit from public works.

The power struggle in Peru’s capital has continued as the Andes and its thousands of small farms struggle to survive the worst drought in half a century. Without rain, farmers cannot plant potatoes, and the dying grass can no longer sustain herds of sheep, alpacas, vicunas and llamas.

Making matters worse, avian flu has killed at least 18,000 sea birds and infected at least one poultry producer, endangering the chickens and turkeys raised for traditional holiday meals.

The government also confirmed that in the past week, the country had suffered a fifth wave of Covid-19 infections. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 4.3 million Peruvians have been infected, and 217,000 have died.

Mr Castillo has three times the popularity of Congress, according to opinion polls. A survey by the Institute of Peruvian Studies last month found 86% disapproval of Congress, and only 10% approval, while the president’s negative ratings were 61%, while 31% approved of his performance.

While a majority in Lima disapproves of Mr Castillo and wants him out, Peruvians in other cities and rural communities across the interior want him to complete his presidential term, and his promises. Many Peruvians want Congress closed instead.