Peruvians took to the streets in massive numbers over the past week to peacefully protest a takeover of the presidency engineered by a coalition of political parties in the Congress. Outrage over the power grab intensified when security forces repressed demonstrators with brutal violence, killing two young people and injuring scores more, while also carrying out mass arbitrary detentions.
Peruvians’ courage in defense of their democracy was rewarded on November 15 when Manuel Merino stepped down as interim president—only a week after Merino and congressional allies had unconstitutionally ousted Martín Vizcarra from the presidency. After Merino’s departure, Congress selected Francisco Sagasti of the centrist Purple Party to become the new legislative leader, positioning him to succeed Merino as Peru’s interim president. Sagasti is a former World Bank official who was serving in the legislature for the first time and had refused to ally with Merino’s corrupt circle in ousting Vizcarra.
Sagasti’s swearing-in as president on November 17 is testament to millions of Peruvians’ demands for a responsive and accountable government. Mirtha Vásquez, a lawyer with the National Human Rights Coordinator of Peru and also serving as a first-time lawmaker with the Frente Amplio party, was elected vice president of Congress and will thus serve as head of Congress with Sagasti’s elevation to the presidency.
Maintaining a clear commitment to new elections will also validate Peruvians’ courage in defense of their democracy, and provide the stability Peru so desperately needs to confront the ongoing ravages of COVID-19.
President Sagasti inherits daunting challenges, as Peru reels from the devastating health and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to tackling the pandemic, the new government must also advance Peru’s fight against corruption.
Moreno and his congressional allies had maneuvered to take over the presidency in large part to protect themselves from pending corruption charges. More than half of the current members of Congress are under investigation for corrupt activities, but cannot face charges because of parliamentary immunity. In another sign of Peru’s deep-rooted corruption, every living president save Francisco Morales Bermúdez (1975-1980) is either under arrest for corruption, or is facing pending arrest. The new government should commit the resources needed to advance those cases expeditiously and impartially.
The new government must also move swiftly to ensure accountability for the security forces who were responsible for the violent repression of demonstrators, including those directly involved and those commanders who gave the orders. Outraged at the flagrant violence unleashed by police against citizens taking to the streets to defend their democracy, Peruvians now demand accountability for the perpetrators and justice for the victims and their families. Prior to the political upheaval last week, members of the police have engaged in excessive use of force in other, more local contexts, revealing a pattern that must be addressed. President Sagasti should form an independent body to propose reforms to the National Police to ensure that police respect the rights of peaceful protestors and refrain from using excessive force.
President Sagasti has explicitly said that he is committed to ensuring that his interim government oversees the presidential and congressional elections already scheduled for April 2021. Keeping to this electoral calendar is critical to help preserve democratic governance in Peru and strengthen the country’s fragile institutions. Maintaining a clear commitment to new elections will also validate Peruvians’ courage in defense of their democracy, and provide the stability Peru so desperately needs to confront the ongoing ravages of COVID-19.