Critics called it a legislative coup, and masses took to the streets for the biggest protests in decades. After two young protesters died, Merino announced that he would resign. He had been president only five days. And so Peru’s Congress quickly put forward a new name for president: Francisco Sagasti.
Sagasti had been a relatively obscure politician, arguably better known for his academic background than his politics. But having declined to support the impeachment proceedings against Vizcarra, he was a compromise choice. He pledged to lead the country as a technocratic interim president ahead of next year’s vote on April 11.
However, as he accepted the nomination to be president on Tuesday, becoming the third Peruvian leader in barely a week, he acknowledged the grand scale of the task ahead was not just him — but also for Peru as a whole.
“This is not a moment for celebration, we have too many problems, tragedies and difficulties. It is a moment to ask ourselves, where did we lose our way?” he said to Congress.
Peru’s back-and-forth system of democracy goes back further than just a few weeks. Four recent Peruvian presidents have been implicated in corruption scandals; one of whom killed himself ahead of his arrest.
The right-wing populist Alberto Fujimori was later pardoned and released from prison midway through a 25-year sentence, only to have his pardon annulled and to return to prison less than two years later.
Sagasti will have the task of not only navigating these rocky political waters with Peru’s powerful Congress, but also reckoning with a coronavirus pandemic that has left Peru one of the worst hit countries on earth per capita and a brutal economic hit. Gross domestic product is expected to drop 14 percent this year.
The plan is to restore faith in the Peruvian political system before the next vote in four months. “We have little time,” new Prime Minister Violeta Bermúdez said in an interview with the El Comercio newspaper, adding that the months “will fly by.”
Who is Francisco Sagasti?
Though Sagasti was not well known in the country, the selection of the 76-year-old as president-elect was a relief for many outside observers.
An academic who had studied at Penn State University and the University of Pennsylvania, he was already well-known in international development circles. He spent a chunk of his earlier career working for the World Bank and the United Nations.
Sagasti returned to Peru almost three decades ago after an earlier constitutional crisis that saw Fujimori seize more powers for the presidency. He helped found the Purple Party, a centrist and progressive group, in 2016 but was only elected to Peru’s Congress last March.
Within Peru, early political reaction has largely been positive. The Purple Party had not supported the impeachment of the popular Vizcarra. The impeached president on Wednesday tweeted that Sagasti could “count on his support” and that the young people of Peru had made their voice heard.
Sagasti also won over many with his emotional swearing-in speech, which saw him in tears as he read a famous poem by Peruvian writer César Vallejo.
In contrast to Merino, whose brief presidency saw conservatives fill cabinet positions, Sagasti has pushed for moderates and progressives to join his government. Of the 18 cabinet positions, eight have gone to women, including high-ranking positions like prime minister and minister of defense.
Peru’s problems run deep
But the next eight months are likely to be difficult sailing for Sagasti’s government, which will have to balance dealing with Peru’s notoriously corrupt yet legally-protected legislature with swelling public anger among a young generation that demands reform of both politics and policing.
There’s also the enormous toll of the pandemic: According to an analysis by Johns Hopkins University, Peru’s death rate from covid-19 is over 110 per 100,000, behind only the tiny European state San Marino and Belgium, which has been devastated with an enormous outbreak.
These competing pressures could well overwhelm the new administration. In one interview on Friday, Prime Minister Bermúdez, a constitutional lawyer, would not commit to political reform and suggested that the time period they had would not be long enough to make any ambitious changes.
In another, Bermúdez praised the actions of most police officers during recent protests — quickly sparking an angry response on social media from those who pointed out that two protesters had died and that as many as 40 had reportedly disappeared.
But the new government’s most pressing task is making sure that next year’s election goes ahead smoothly. Peru’s democracy has been troubled since at least the decade-long reign of Fujimori in the 1990s, but the failed response to coronavirus and the economic disarray of 2020 show the risks of long-term dysfunction.
Sagasti’s aim is to remain interim president until July 28, when the new president is inaugurated. After that, Peru will get yet another president. At present, former soccer star George Forsyth leads in polls, though the Purple Party’s Julio Guzmán is not far behind. Whoever wins will be the country’s sixth new president in a decade.
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