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 Tuesday, becoming the third Peruvian leader in barely a week, he acknowledged the grand scale of the task ahead — facing not just him but also all of Peru.
“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 has a deeper history than just a few weeks. Four recent Peruvian presidents have been implicated in corruption scandals; one killed himself ahead of his arrest.
The right-wing populist Alberto Fujimori was pardoned and released from prison midway through a 25-year sentence, only to be sent back to prison a little more than a year later, after his pardon was annulled.
Sagasti will have to navigate rocky political waters with Peru’s powerful Congress while also reckoning with a coronavirus pandemic that has left Peru with one of the highest death tolls per capita and a damaged economy. 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 the spring. “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 was a relief to many outside observers.
An academic who had studied at Pennsylvania 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. Sagasti helped found the Purple Party, a centrist and liberal group, in 2016 but was elected to Peru’s Congress only in March.
Within Peru, early political reaction was largely positive. The Purple Party had not supported the impeachment of the popular Vizcarra. The impeached president tweeted Wednesday 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 liberals to join his government. Of the 18 cabinet positions, eight have gone to women, including high-ranking positions such as prime minister and minister of defense.
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 changes in 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 exceeds 110 per 100,000, behind only the tiny European state of San Marino and Belgium, which has been devastated by an enormous outbreak.
These competing pressures could overwhelm the new administration. In one interview Friday, Bermúdez, a constitutional lawyer, would not commit to political reform and suggested that the time the administration has would not be long enough to make any ambitious changes.
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 the 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.