(Bloomberg) — The push to impeach Peru’s president over a graft case took a new twist after the government said it may ask the country’s top court to halt the process, and a local report said the head of congress sought to obtain military support for the president’s ouster.
President Martin Vizcarra’s cabinet is meeting Saturday to discuss filing an injunction against the impeachment motion at the Constitutional Court, Justice Minister Ana Neyra told RPP radio. The government may also ask it to rule on the grounds for impeaching the president.
Congress voted late Friday to start the process that may remove Vizcarra from office, throwing the country in political disarray just as it tries to recover from the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Lawmakers backing the motion allege Vizcarra sought to obstruct a graft probe into his administration. A final vote is scheduled for Sept. 18, after the president has had a chance to defend himself in a congress where the president has no party to defend him.
The justice minister said congress is pushing for impeachment “simply with the strength of the votes.” Peru’s constitution allows congress to impeach the president on the grounds of permanent moral incapacity.
“Ultimately what we want is that it’s the court that determines how to interpret impeachment on the grounds of moral incapacity in a presidential system,” Neyra said. “The whole system is designed so that the president and the congress remain for their entire mandate.”
The political turmoil risks weighing on an economy badly battered by Covid-19. With the world’s highest deaths per capita from the coronavirus, the South American nation saw gross domestic product tumble 30% in the second quarter, the worst slump of any major economy. It also marks the latest chapter in the history of one of Latin America’s most politically volatile nations.
Political intrigue deepened Saturday after a report by investigative news website IDL-Reporteros that Manuel Merino, the head of congress, made calls to senior members of the armed forces on Thursday to inform them about the possibility of Vizcarra’s ouster, hours before the motion was first presented to parliament. The military officials informed Defense Minister Jorge Chavez about the calls, the report said.
Neyra said the cabinet would consider legal action after hearing from Chavez. If the report is true, “we could be facing an act of sedition,” she said.
Merino will replace Vizcarra if he’s impeached until elections can take place. Peru is due to hold a general election in April, and Vizcarra has repeatedly said he won’t seek a new term.
Attempts by Bloomberg News to seek comment from Merino via congress’ press office were unsuccessful.
The political turmoil has taken a toll: the Peruvian sol was the worst-performing emerging markets currency Friday, losing 0.8% versus the dollar, the most in three months.
Vizcarra is the second Peruvian leader facing impeachment proceedings in less than three years. His predecessor, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, resigned after an opposition lawmaker released videos that showed his allies apparently negotiating votes to stave off his ouster. Two other former presidents are under investigation for graft and another one is in prison.
Since replacing Kuczynski in 2018, Vizcarra, 57, has tried to overhaul the nation’s judicial and political systems, frequently clashing with lawmakers in the process and even dissolving the previous legislature last year.
‘Layer of Uncertainty’
Congress will vote on Monday on a motion to remove Finance Minister Maria Antonieta Alva from her post, alleging she didn’t do enough to prevent the economic slump during the pandemic.
“This political crisis adds another layer of uncertainty to an economy already stressed by the severe pandemic impact on all grounds,” JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s analysts Diego Pereira and Lucila Barbeito wrote in a report Friday. “This new congress has proved even more antagonistic to the government than the previous one, and thus the likelihood of a deeper institutional crisis could not be ruled out.”
Prosecutors and lawmakers this year began probing alleged irregularities in the government’s hiring of a little-known singer to give motivational talks at the Culture Ministry. Richard Cisneros, the singer in question, is alleged to have used contacts in the presidential palace to obtain contracts totaling about $50,000.
On Thursday morning, lawmakers heard tapes of Vizcarra appearing to speak to officials about Cisneros’ visits to the presidential palace. Less than 12 hours later they presented a motion to unseat him.
In one excerpt, Vizcarra appears to say Cisneros made several visits to the presidential palace and instructs his staff to say that only a few took place. Vizcarra said in a televised address Thursday that the release of tapes was part of a plot by political opponents to remove him from power.
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