LIMA, Peru — Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra is facing the threat of impeachment after the country’s opposition-controlled Congress agreed Friday to vote on his possible ouster just a day after the release of several secretly recorded audios.
The latest political storm to hit the South American country was spurred by lawmakers who accuse the president of obstructing an investigation into nearly $50,000 in government contracts given to singer Richard Cisneros, who performs as “Richard Swing.”
But the speed with which lawmakers are acting has drawn alarm, as the president has not been charged and an investigation has only just begun.
“Peru’s democracy is unfortunately sinking further and further into crisis,” said Steve Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist. “The removal of the president is a really big deal, and it requires serious deliberation, public debate and investigation. There has been none.”
The political turmoil strikes as Peru is reeling from the coronavirus pandemic. The nation has the world’s highest per-population virus mortality rate and is facing a severe economic contraction that has left millions without work.
Peru also has been repeatedly rocked by political turmoil and corruption scandals. Nearly every former living president has been implicated in the regional graft scandal involving the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht.
Vizcarra, however, hasn’t been linked to the earlier corruption nor has he been harshly tainted by the pandemic’s upheaval. He remains popular among Peruvians, with 60% voicing approval for his government in a recent survey by the Ipsos polling firm. Congress, by contrast, has a 32% approval rating. Some analysts fear his abrupt removal could spark a wave of unrest by angry citizens.
The president has denied any wrongdoing and contends he won’t resign.
“If they want to impeach me, here I am, with my head held high and my conscience clean,” he said in a defiant televised statement.
The commotion kicked off Thursday when opposition lawmaker Edgar Alarcón presented Congress with three audio recordings that he claims show the president tried to get his aides to cover up meetings with Cisneros.
Cisneros has been in the spotlight since June, when it was revealed that he had been hired by the Ministry of Culture to give motivational talks during the pandemic. The obscure singer has a YouTube channel with 1,200 followers. His most popular song is a cover of Juan Gabriel’s “Until I Met You.”
Cisneros was involved in the campaign of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who resigned as president in 2018 and was replaced by Vizcarra, then the vice president. Critics say the meetings and contracts show a pattern of favoritism.
Vizcarra acknowledged knowing Cisneros but said he had no role in any contracts given. In the audios, Vizcarra acknowledges having two meetings with the singer. The chief prosecutor’s office has requested the tapes, though it is unclear whether the meetings in themselves present any wrongdoing.
The singer said Friday he had been the victim of a trap, secretly recorded by a disgruntled former presidential office employee who wanted him to speak badly about Vizcarra in an attempt to topple the chief of state.
Wearing sunglasses, a blue surgical mask and a plastic visor, Cisneros told local media that he caught on to the ploy and purposely lied about having compromising information to “see how far” the opposition might go.
“Everything I said there was false,” he said.
Vizcarra took office boasting an anti-corruption platform and has built a reputation as a straight-talking leader not afraid to take on powerful political actors.
Last year he dissolved Congress in a brash move cheered by citizens as a victory against a corrupt class of politicians. The decision effectively wiped out the influence of the Popular Force party in Peru. Led by the daughter of former strongman Alberto Fujimori, the party had been a domineering force in the nation’s politics but won few seats in elections for for new lawmakers this year.
Congress twice initiated impeachment proceedings against Kuczynski and tried to do the same against Vizcarra last year.
Abhijit Surya, Peru analyst for The Economist Intelligence Unit, said impeachment could trigger large-scale social unrest and an institutional crisis. Lawmakers need a two-thirds majority to approve the ouster.
He added that in the short-term, impeachment would have little effect on proceedings since Congress already has an out-sized role in adopting policy, able to override the president’s veto on any matter with a simple majority. In addition, a presidential election is already scheduled for next April.
But in the long term, it could hurt any future president’s chances at longevity, Surya said.
“The next president could be similarly impeached by Congress without necessarily having to go through a rigorous process of investigation or anything of the kind,” he said. “And Peru’s presidency is fairly weak to begin with.”
Associated Press writer Christine Armario reported this story from Bogota, Colombia, and AP writer Franklin Briceño reported in Lima, Peru.