Peru’s 76-year-old new president Francisco Sagasti was sworn in November 17 at a special session of Congress, tasked with resolving the South American country’s crippling political crisis.
Sagasti, from the centrist Morado party, will serve as interim president until the end of July next year, completing the mandate of Martin Vizcarra, whose impeachment by Congress on November 9 set off a snowballing crisis.
His immediate predecessor, former Congress speaker Manuel Merino, was forced to resign on November 15 after days of street protests culminated the day before in the death of two people.
Sagasti immediately asked for “forgiveness on behalf of the state” from the families of the two young demonstrators killed on November 14, apparently at the hands of the police.
“We cannot bring these young people back to life,” he said in a speech to Congress.
He said he would do everything possible “to reduce the spread of the pandemic, but without affecting the economy”, in recession after a months-long compulsory national shutdown.
The politically fragile country has the world’s highest per capita death rate – with nearly 35,000 fatalities – and gross domestic product (GDP) has plunged more than 30 per cent in the second quarter.
The US said it was ready to work with the new president “and support Peruvians in preparing for a democratic transition” in elections next April, said the Undersecretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, Michael Kozak.
Sagasti’s arrival in power was greeted with relief by thousands of Peruvians who had taken to the streets against Merino, protesting what they called a “coup d’etat” against Vizcarra.
“All of us young people feel that we have made a small achievement, but it is not enough,” said Geraldine Aldave, a 22-year-old fashion designer who took part in the protests calling for Merino’s dismissal.
“This president has to do something to maintain democracy, but from April, from the elections, it’s up to us.”
Congress, half of whose members face criminal inquiries, remains deeply unpopular over its removal of Vizcarra.
Professional clown Walter Nunez, 30, welcomed Sagasti’s image as “a technically prepared person, which was not the case with the previous usurper [Merino].
“Personally he brings peace of mind, but I am not satisfied yet because there are still members of Congress who should be out,” Nunez said.
Political analyst Augusto Alvarez Rodrich said management of the “coronavirus pandemic, economic recovery and conducting the April 11 general elections in a transparent manner” were the priorities facing the new president.
Some lawmakers have questioned the wisdom of removing Vizcarra in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and a crippling recession, but Sagasti would bring “a moment of political and economic stability” for the country, said Rodrich.
His main task will be to steady a rocky political ship.
“You can count on my support,” tweeted Vizcarra, who had denounced Merino’s lack of “legality and legitimacy” to be president.
Of the eight presidents Peru has had since the end of the country’s military regime in 1985, seven have been convicted or implicated in scandals or have investigations opened against them.
Alberto Fujimori is serving a sentence for crimes against humanity and corruption. Alan Garcia, Alejandro Toledo, Ollanta Humala and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski were all implicated in the giant Odebrecht bribes scandal.
Garcia committed suicide as police entered his home to arrest him.
Vizcarra is under investigation for alleged bribery when he was governor, and prosecutors opened an investigation on November 16 against Merino for the deaths of the two demonstrators.
Only Velentin Paniagua, who was president for eight months in 2000, has been spared prosecution.