The vote marked the latest chapter of political turmoil in a country with the world’s highest per-capita COVID-19 mortality rate.
The president denied any wrongdoing in a forceful speech before Congress but lawmakers said they didn’t believe him. They also lambasted his response to the virus, pointing to rising poverty, deadly oxygen shortages and the country’s misguided use of rapid antibody tests.
Vizcarra is accused by opposition legislators of taking over $630,000 in exchange for two construction projects when he was governor of a small province in southern Peru from 2011 to 2014. The claims come from construction managers themselves accused of corruption and who could get reduced jail time in exchange for the information.
Prosecutors are investigating the allegations but have not charged Vizcarra.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.
LIMA, Peru (AP) — Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra warned opposition lawmakers seeking his ouster Monday that a rash decision to remove him on the basis of unproven corruption allegations could bring grave consequences for the hard-hit nation.
Arriving at Congress wearing a mask with the image of a condor flying over the Andean mountains, the embattled president launched into a speech rejecting any wrongdoing and calling for unity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“History and Peruvians will judge our decisions,” he said.
His accusers must obtain 87 of 130 votes to remove him — a decision that could come as early as Monday evening.
The South American nation has been thrust into yet another chapter of political uncertainty while also grappling with a severe economic downturn and the world’s highest per-capita COVID-19 mortality rate. It is the second time in less than two months that Congress has convoked a vote on ousting Vizcarra, who is popular with Peruvians but has no party backing him in the legislature.
The new call for Vizcarra’s removal centers around accusations that he took over $630,000 in bribes in exchange for authorizing two construction contracts while governor of Moquegua, a small province of 180,000 in southern Peru. The allegations come from construction managers who themselves are being investigated for corruption in a separate case and could reduce potential jail time by providing information.
Speaking to legislators who at times yelled out against him, Vizcarra said that he would not have had the authority to usher through the contracts in question, which must go through a detailed approval process involving multiple actors. One contract was for an irrigation project and the other for a hospital.
“The best technical decisions were made — none with the objective of filling the pockets of anyone, much less myself,” he said.
He told legislators it would be potentially disastrous for Peru to remove a president on the basis of statements from people under investigation themselves and with possible ulterior motives to accuse him of wrongdoing. In Peru, lawmakers can remove a president on the vaguely defined grounds of “moral incapacity.”
“It would increase fears about the viability and institutions of Peru,” he said. “And that would bring grave economic consequences.”
Peru has experienced one of the world’s worst virus outbreaks, with at least 34,879 deaths and 922,333 infections in the nation of 32 million. The high fatality and infection rate are the culmination of years of underinvestment in public health, poverty and costly decisions by officials in the early days of the pandemic, like massively deploying rapid antibody tests to diagnose cases even though they can’t identify infection early during an illness.
Vizcarra rose to the nation’s highest office in 2018 after then-President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned amid allegations that he’d failed to disclose payments from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to his private consulting firm. He has made defeating corruption his principal mission and is one of the nation’s most popular leaders in recent history.
But he’s repeatedly faced off with Congress, dismissing lawmakers last year in a brash move cheered by citizens as a victory against dishonest politicians. He’s also pushed through initiatives to reform how judges are chosen and bar politicians with crimes from running for office.
Political analyst Alonso Cárdenas said the repeated attempts to oust Vizcarra highlight the weaknesses of Peru’s political system, where no party has a majority and politicians are guided more by individual interests than ideology.
Vizcarra’s predecessor also faced multiple attempts to remove him from office.
“As incredible as it seems, in Peru it is easier to kick out a president than a mayor,” he said. “For the political system in general and the credibility of the state this is very negative.”
The president easily survived an impeachment vote in September brought by opposition lawmakers who accused him of favoring a little-known singer known as Richard Swing. The entertainer received nearly $50,000 in questionable contracts by the Ministry of Culture for activities like motivational speaking during the pandemic. Vizcarra denied any misconduct and lawmakers decided there weren’t grounds to impeach him, though a probe continues.
It was uncertain whether legislators would obtain enough votes to oust him Monday. Several lawmakers gave speeches urging his removal, speaking so forcefully that several had to pull up face masks that slid down while shouting into microphones. Many accused the president of being a liar. Others decried his handling of the pandemic, saying that he owes the nation an apology.
Peru’s GDP is expected to contract 12% this year, one of the region’s worst recessions.
Yessica Apaza, a congresswoman who represents a province where nearly half of citizens live in poverty, said she could not vote in favor of Vizcarra while more of her constituents begin to go hungry. She pointed to cases of Peruvians who died of COVID-19 while waiting to get oxygen and said she believes the country is not prepared to handle a second uptick in virus cases.
“It’s the time to break this long tail of corruption,” she said. “The government hasn’t come through – they’ve just missed opportunities and deceived.”