CARACAS, Venezuela — President Martín Vizcarra of Peru was impeached by Congress on Monday, plunging the country into a constitutional crisis amid a devastating coronavirus pandemic just months before presidential elections.
The opposition’s motion to remove the president for alleged corruption was supported by 105 of Peru’s 130 lawmakers, more than the 87 votes required for removal. Peru has a unicameral system, and Monday’s vote represented the final decision of Congress.
Under Peru’s Constitution, the person in line to replace Mr. Vizcarra as interim president, until the end of his term next July, is the president of Congress, the opposition lawmaker and businessman Manuel Merino.
The impeachment vote, which shocked a nation that had expected the president to survive, was a culmination of an increasingly bitter standoff between Mr. Vizcarra, a centrist, and his opponents in Congress, who are opposed to his attempts to overhaul the country’s political and judicial system.
Monday’s vote was the lawmakers’ second attempt to impeach Mr. Vizcarra in two months, following a failed vote in September for an unrelated accusation of obstruction of justice.
On Monday evening, it was unclear if Mr. Vizcarra, 57, would acknowledge the vote as constitutional and step down. His government has portrayed the impeachment motion as a baseless abuse of a rarely used constitutional clause that was intended to allow lawmakers to oust a president who is mentally or morally unfit for office, not punish a president for a perceived wrongdoing.
“The worst thing we can do right now is sink the country again in greater agitation and instability,” Mr. Vizcarra said in his defense speech on Monday.
Ordinarily there would be a first vice president and a second vice president in the line of succession behind the president, but both positions are vacant,
Despite the growing accusations of wrongdoing, only 20 percent of Peruvians supported Mr. Vizcarra’s impeachment, according to an Ipsos poll in late October, and he has the support of the country’s Armed Forces, a traditional arbiter of power in Peru.
Minutes after the vote, groups of Mr. Vizcarra’s supporters began gathering outside Congress to denounce what they called a “coup,” according to local broadcasters, and civil society leaders criticized the timing of the vote during a deep health crisis. Heavy police cordons encircled the legislative building in preparation for unrest.
“This is not rebirth,” the Archbishop of Lima, Carlos Castillo, said of the impeachment vote. “Here, there’s only rage, jealousy and aggressions.”
The new bid to oust Mr. Vizcarra got underway weeks after local media reported on leaked testimony by one of his close former associates and construction executives, which alleged he took bribes from local construction companies as the governor of a small mining region in the early 2010s.
Mr. Vizcarra is accused of accepting some 2.3 million soles, or about $641,000, and could face at least 15 years in prison if found guilty, according to an official in the prosecutor’s office who asked not to be named.
The president has denied the charges and accused lawmakers of using his impeachment to postpone April’s elections. He has promised to cooperate with prosecutors and face trial when his term ends in July and has blamed the opposition for trying to destabilize the country in a moment of crisis.