Peru President, Martín Vizcarra, Survives Impeachment Vote

LIMA, Peru — President Martín Vizcarra of Peru survived an impeachment vote on Friday, ending a congressional battle which had threatened to plunge the country into a constitutional crisis amid a devastating pandemic.

The opposition’s motion to impeach the president for alleged obstruction of justice was supported by 32 of Peru’s 130 lawmakers, far short of the two-thirds majority of 87 votes required for removal.

The vote, capping a turbulent week of political battles between Mr. Vizcarra’s supporters and opponents, cleared a path for the president to serve out his term, which ends in July, after which he has promised to leave office and defend himself in court against accusations of any wrongdoing.

But what was exposed by the impeachment hearings has further discredited Peru’s political class, seven months ahead of general elections in one of the Latin American countries worst hit by the pandemic.

Opposition lawmakers initiated impeachment proceedings last week after releasing a series of audio recordings, in which Mr. Vizcarra appeared to be instructing subordinates to lie to prosecutors about a minor influence-peddling scandal.

But their bid to topple him began to unravel within hours, after military leaders signaled their support for Mr. Vizcarra, a centrist former vice president, and as influential opposition leaders came out against the motion, arguing that the country needed stability in a time of crisis.

“Peru cannot be stopped because of the content of a few audio recordings with no validity,” Mr. Vizcarra said in a speech defending himself before Congress on Friday. “The management of the pandemic and the economic reactivation cannot remain in suspense.”

Despite enacting swift lockdowns and having accumulated large financial reserves before the pandemic, Peru now has the highest number of deaths per capita from the coronavirus in the world. Its economy, once the region’s fastest growing, is on track to contract 12 percent this year.

Peru has a unicameral system, so the vote Friday was Congress’s final word on impeachment. It had been unclear whether Mr. Vizcarra would agree to step down if lawmakers voted to remove him, raising the prospect of a constitutional crisis.

Once the governor of a remote mountainous region, Mr. Vizcarra took office two years ago, replacing the former president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who resigned after a corruption scandal.

As president, Mr. Vizcarra promised to uproot entrenched corruption and clean up the country’s political system, a welcome message for many Peruvians, who were weary of the corruption scandals and political vendettas that have ensnared former presidents and dozens of politicians, officials, judges and businessmen in recent years.

But Mr. Vizcarra has repeatedly clashed with a Congress hostile to his attempts to overhaul Peru’s political system, leading him to call for a snap legislative election last year. That vote returned an even more fractured and quarrelsome Congress, forcing the president to rely on unlikely tactical alliances with leftists to govern.

Mr. Vizcarra is the sixth consecutive Peruvian president to be accused of corruption. He cannot be formally investigated until his term ends.

The impeachment crisis has allowed outsider presidential candidates for the coming April election to portray the traditional political class as disconnected from the critical problems facing Peruvians during an unprecedented health and economic crisis.

“I feel rage, frustration and impotence,” George Forsyth, a former soccer star who is currently leading a divided field of likely presidential contenders, said in a Twitter post after the start of the impeachment proceedings. “These politicians are robbing us of illusion and hope.”

The impeachment bid stems from local media reports in May that a little-known pop singer and political supporter, Richard Cisneros, had secured about $50,000 in government contracts to provide motivational classes for civil servants and other services. The singer had performed concerts to support Mr. Vizcarra’s presidential ticket in the last general elections in 2016, but has denied he was unqualified or hired to return a political favor.

In one of the leaked audio recordings, Mr. Vizcarra appears to be asking government officials to cover up visits by Mr. Cisneros to the presidential palace, saying at one point that “in an investigation, we’re all involved.”

“We have to present a common front,” he is heard saying.

Mr. Vizcarra has acknowledged that it was his voice in the recordings, but he said they had been edited and did not show any evidence of wrongdoing.