LIMA, Peru (AP) — Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra easily survived an impeachment vote Friday night after opposition lawmakers failed to amass enough support to oust the leader as the country copes with one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks.
The decision came after long hours of debate in which legislators blasted Vizcarra but also questioned whether a rushed impeachment process would only create more turmoil in the middle of a health and economic crisis.
“It’s not the moment to proceed with an impeachment which would add even more problems to the tragedy we are living,” lawmaker Francisco Sagasti said.
In the end, only 32 lawmakers voted to remove the president, while 78 voted against and 15 abstained. A two-thirds majority was needed to oust Vizcarra.
The political feud was sparked by the release of several covertly recorded audios that Vizcarra's detractors contend show he tried to obstruct an influence peddling probe. And despite the failed vote, that conflict was likely to continue, afflicting the president's ability to carry forward his anti-corruption agenda could be indefinitely stymied.
“In the overall scheme of things, Vizcarra has won this round, but winning is a very relative term,” said Jo-Marie Burt, a senior fellow with the Washington Office on Latin America.
The political turmoil rocking Peru has briefly distracted attention from the pandemic, which has left hundreds of thousands sick in the South American nation with the highest per capita COVID-19 mortality rate around the globe.
At the center of the ordeal is Vizcarra’s relationship with a little-known musician known as Richard Swing and nearly $50,000 in questionable contracts that the entertainer was given by the Ministry of Culture for activities like motivational speaking.
A covert audio recording shared by Edgar Alarcón — a lawmaker himself charged with embezzlement — appears to show Vizcarra coordinating a defense strategy with two aides, trying to get their stories straight on how many times the musician had visited him.
In remarks before Congress on Friday, Vizcarra asked for forgiveness for the upheaval that the audios have generated but insisted he committed no crime. He called for a proper investigation and urged lawmakers not to aggravate Peru's already precarious situation by rushing through an impeachment proceeding.
“Let's not generate a new crisis, unnecessarily, that would primarily affect the most vulnerable,” he said
During a long day of debate, many lawmakers expressed frustration with Vizcarra, denouncing his apology as a weak attempt to make amends and demanding a thorough investigation. But numerous legislators also said they couldn't support an impeachment that itself was rushed and full of flaws, held before an official probe reaches any conclusions.
“This doesn't mean we're handing over a blank check,” one lawmaker warned.
Vizcarra became president in 2018 after Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned the presidency under pressure by Congress after the discovery of about $782,000 in undisclosed payments to his private consulting firm by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, which is at the center of a regionwide corruption scandal.
Odebrecht has admitted to paying some $800 million in bribes to officials across Latin America, and nearly every living former Peruvian president has been implicated in the scandal.
Vizcarra, at the time a vice president serving as Peru’s ambassador to Canada, is an engineer by training and was considered an unknown political novice. But he has managed to become a highly popular president, recently getting a 57% approval rating in a poll despite Peru’s severe economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis and the high infection rate.
Many Peruvians see him as a frank-talking leader who has taken on corruption, dismissing Congress last year in a brash move cheered by citizens as a victory against a dishonest class of politicians and pushing through initiatives to reform how judges are chosen and bar politicians charged with crimes from running for office.
“He’s the only president who — without a lot of power — has faced off against those shameless people,” said Pedro Quispe, a retired teacher out selling face masks on a recent day.
Steve Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist, said Vizcarra has made “some modest steps forward” when it comes to corruption.
“He hasn’t been able to carry out all the political reform that he and his allies hope to,” Levitsky said. “But corruption in middle-income countries is never eliminated in a single presidency.”
Vizcarra tried to halt the impeachment by filing a lawsuit with the Constitutional Tribunal, but magistrates ruled Thursday that the process could proceed, under the belief that lawmakers would not actually be able to oust him.
While analysts criticized the rushed procedure in which the impeachment proceeding was initiated within hours of the audio’s release, many agreed the president owed Peruvians an explanation.
Vizcarra didn't delve into details in his statement Friday, though he did point to inconsistencies in statements by a former aide who made the audios and said the only proven misconduct is having been illicitly recorded.
To what degree the scandal could taint the seven months he has left in office remains to be seen. The president has no majority in Congress, a pandemic still to deal with and an economic contraction that has thrown millions into poverty.
His presidency, it appears, will be book-ended by crises.
“He is very isolated, very alone,” Burt said. “I really don’t think anyone is winning in this situation.”
Associated Press writer Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia, and AP writer Franklin Briceño reported in Lima, Peru.