Peruvian President Pedro Castillo has dissolved the nation’s Congress and called for new legislative elections, beating legislators to the punch as they prepared to debate a third attempt to remove him from office.
He also installed a new emergency government, and called in a televised address for the next round of legislators to develop a new constitution for the Andean nation.
He said he would rule by decree, and ordered a nightly curfew starting on Wednesday night.
Mr Castillo also announced that he will reorganise the judiciary, the police and the constitutional court.
He took action hours before opponents in Congress moved towards a third vote to remove him from office, claiming he has shown a “permanent moral incapacity” to lead the nation. It was not clear if they had the 87 votes among 130 legislators necessary to remove him.
The national ombudsman’s office, an autonomous government institution, said in a statement that after years of democracy, Peru is in the midst of a constitutional collapse “that can’t be called anything but a coup”.
The office called for the president to resign and turn himself in to judicial authorities, adding: “Mr Castillo must remember that he was not only elected president of the republic, but also that the people elected representatives for public service. Castillo’s actions ignore the will of the people and are invalid.”
Mr Castillo said in an unusual midnight address on state television ahead of the vote that he would never stain “the good name of my honest and exemplary parents who, like millions of Peruvians, work every day to build honestly a future for their families”.
The peasant-turned-president said he is paying for mistakes made due to inexperience, but added that a certain sector of Congress “has as its only agenda item removing me from office because they never accepted the results of an election that you, my dear Peruvians, determined with your votes”.
Mr Castillo, whose government began in July 2021, denied the allegations against him, saying they are based on “hearsay statements by people who, seeking to lighten their own punishments for supposed crimes by abusing my confidence, are trying to involve me without evidence”.
Federal prosecutors are investigating six cases against him, most for alleged corruption, under the theory that he has used his power to profit from public works.
The power struggle in Peru’s capital has continued as the Andes and its thousands of small farms struggle to survive the worst drought in half a century. Without rain, farmers cannot plant potatoes, and the dying grass can no longer sustain herds of sheep, alpacas, vicunas and llamas.
Making matters worse, avian flu has killed at least 18,000 sea birds and infected at least one poultry producer, endangering the chickens and turkeys raised for traditional holiday meals.
The government also confirmed that in the past week, the country had suffered a fifth wave of Covid-19 infections. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 4.3 million Peruvians have been infected, and 217,000 have died.
Mr Castillo has three times the popularity of Congress, according to opinion polls. A survey by the Institute of Peruvian Studies last month found 86% disapproval of Congress, and only 10% approval, while the president’s negative ratings were 61%, while 31% approved of his performance.
While a majority in Lima disapproves of Mr Castillo and wants him out, Peruvians in other cities and rural communities across the interior want him to complete his presidential term, and his promises. Many Peruvians want Congress closed instead.
But with few sure votes in Congress, he has not been able to keep his promises including fighting against corruption, raising taxes on mining, rewriting the constitution and going after supposed monopolies that have raised prices on natural gas and medicines.
The first president to come from a poor farming community in the nation’s 200-year history, Mr Castillo arrived in the presidential palace last year without any political experience.
He has changed his cabinet five times during his year and a half in office, running through 60 different cabinet officials, leaving various government agencies paralysed.