LIMA, Peru – Peru’s congress voted on Friday to start impeachment hearings against President Martín Vizcarra on charges of obstruction of justice, a move that could result in his swift removal from office just as the country faces one of the worst epidemics coronavirus to the world.
The political crisis was sparked Thursday by the release to Congress of audio tapes that appear to show the president instructing officials to lie about a flu propaganda scandal.
Impeachment is the latest battle in the protracted standoff between Mr. Vizcarra, a popular former centrist governor, and a divided congress hostile to his attempts to pass anti-corruption measures and change the country̵
In January, tension led to early congressional elections. Now the stalemate could interfere with the country’s response to the coronavirus.
Despite the adoption of swift pandemic measures, Peru now has the largest number of deaths per capita from coronavirus around the world. According to a government forecast, its once fastest growing economy in the region is now expected to contract 12% this year, leading to what would be the deepest recession in a century.
Mr. Vizcarra said the audio recordings had been manipulated and denied that they constituted anything illegal, much less grounds for impeachment.
“This is a lie that seeks to destabilize democracy and take control of the government,” Vizcarra said. “If you want to accuse me, here I am, with my conscience at ease.”
If he were ousted, the current president of Congress, Manuel Merino, a right-wing businessman opposed to Vizcarra, would become president.
On Friday, 65 lawmakers in the 130-member body voted to initiate proceedings against Mr. Vizcarra, although not all members voted. The president’s opponents in Congress will eventually need 87 votes to remove him.
Allegations of political corruption have long been used to settle political scores in Peru, which has struggled to build democratic institutions after decades of military and authoritarian rulers. Mr. Vizcarra’s four predecessors have all been investigated or accused of corruption.
One, Alan García, committed suicide last year when police arrived at his home to arrest him during a transplant investigation.
However, instead of eliminating the deep grafting culture, politicized investigations by senior officials have reduced the country’s stability and thwarted much-needed reforms.
“All of Vizcarra’s energy goes into putting out political fires, limiting the government’s ability to implement the policies that the people demand,” said Jimena Blanco, chief analyst for the Americas at Verisk Maplecroft, a political risk consultancy.
Former Vice President, Mr. Vizcarra took office in 2018 when his predecessor stepped down to avoid impeachment in a transplant scandal. Since then, Mr. Vizcarra has had a difficult relationship with lawmakers, who have blocked his anti-corruption proposals.
These proposals, however, have made Mr. Vizcarra one of the country’s most popular recent presidents, allowing him to cultivate an image of an independent reformer from the country’s corrupt elites.
He filled his cabinet with technical experts, distancing himself from the market for the influence of the country’s traditional parties.
When the pandemic arrived, it responded by carrying out mass testing and some of the region’s most stringent quarantine measures and most comprehensive economic aid packages.
Peru’s profound inequality and poor health system, however, soon overwhelmed its pandemic measures, fueling growing discontent with the country’s political system. More than 30,000 Peruvians have died in the pandemic.