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Peru’s Vice President Bows Out Of Bitter Power Struggle

Photo caption: A maintenance worker sweeps the street as riot police block the door to the C...

Photo by Martin Mejia AP

A maintenance worker sweeps the street as riot police block the door to the Congress building Tuesday in Lima. Late Tuesday night, Mercedes Aráoz, the vice president who had briefly accepted the mantle of acting president from lawmakers, performed a surprise U-turn by announcing her resignation.

Well, that didn't last long.

About 24 hours after opposition lawmakers elevated Peruvian Vice President Mercedes Aráoz to the country's highest office — a move targeted squarely at the president with whom they are feuding — Aráoz has decided to bow out. On Tuesday night, the would-be interim president shuffled off the title, saying in a statement posted to Twitter that she was declining the job because "the constitutional order in Peru has broken down."

"I deeply wish that our country overcomes this serious institutional crisis for the good of all Peruvians," she wrote in the letter, "especially the less fortunate who are the most affected by the irresponsibility of politicians." She is also resigning the vice presidency.

The shocking about-face marks a triumph for President Martín Vizcarra, who has been embroiled in a bitter showdown with the country's Congress. Vizcarra dissolved the legislative body Monday, claiming that opposition lawmakers were stonewalling his anti-corruption agenda for their personal gain and called for elections to be held in late January to replace them.

The lawmakers rejected the move as unconstitutional and tried to dismiss Vizcarra in turn. This is where Aráoz came in: Shortly after voting to suspend Vizcarra for a year, they swore in his vice president with her initial approval. "I accept this with fortitude," she said before Congress at the time. "It is one of the most difficult decisions I have made in my life."

Difficult — yet apparently reversible.

It quickly became clear that Vizcarra had the backing of the country's security forces, with commanders of the police and every branch of the military standing in his corner. And the streets of Lima, the capital, swarmed with thousands of the president's supporters, who voiced their frustration with a massive, multinational corruption scandal that has entangled the country's previous four heads of state, as well as the leader of the principal opposition party.

Vizcarra's predecessor, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, stepped down last year amid allegations that he accepted bribes from the Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht. Ollanta Humala, Alan García and Alejandro Toledo, who held office before Kuczynski, also attracted claims of bribery connected with the firm. And Keiko Fujimori, leader of the conservative opposition and daughter of a former authoritarian, is currently in detention on suspicion of accepting illegal payments from Odebrecht.

When Vizcarra took office, he vowed to conduct a campaign against government graft — but his allies in Congress are vastly outnumbered, and he said the situation has become untenable. According to the Peruvian Constitution, the president has the right to dissolve Congress and call new elections — though whether he has met the conditions necessary to do so remains a matter of contention.

The Organization of American States weighed in Tuesday, saying that it was up to Peru's Constitutional Court — not Congress — to "rule on the legality and legitimacy of the institutional decisions adopted." The OAS also suggested support for Vizcarra's position.

"It is a constructive step that the elections have been called according to the constitutional deadlines and that the final decision rests with the Peruvian people, in whom lies the sovereignty of the nation," the OAS General Secretariat explained in a statement. "It is fair that the political polarization in the country will be resolved by the people at the polls."

Still, lawmakers have signaled no intention of backing down, labeling the president's administration a dictatorship and saying that "only civil resistance remains."

"History will judge the coupist Vizcarra and his accomplices for this betrayal of democracy," lawmaker Salvador Heresi said Tuesday.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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