Peru's Government Is in Crisis. Here's What's Happened in the Chaotic Power Struggle

Martin Vizcarra on Monday announced he was dissolving the legislature to turn a page on Peru's long history of crooked politicos, conflicts of interest and graft

Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra and the opposition-controlled congress have each taken action to remove each other from power, creating the deepest constitutional crisis in nearly three decades for a nation frustrated by years of dysfunctional politics and corruption scandals.

Vizcarra on Monday announced he was dissolving the legislature to turn a page on Peru's long history of crooked politicos, conflicts of interest and graft. Lawmakers from the majority party likened the move to a coup and voted to suspend him from office, appointing his one-time vice president as the nation's rightful leader instead.

The professional engineer who became president last year after Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned has been in a protracted feud with the opposition-controlled congress over his initiatives to curb corruption.

Nearly every living former Peruvian president is implicated in the Odebrecht corruption scandal — and opposition leader Keiko Fujimori in jail, though not convicted, over allegations her party took money from the Brazilian construction company, which has admitted to doling out millions of dollars to politicians in exchange for lucrative public works contracts.

Fujimori's Popular Force party holds a majority and accuses Vizcarra of repeatedly overstepping his executive powers and creating a false political crisis to district from other issues.

The feud came to a head Monday when opposition lawmakers pushed a vote to select new magistrates to the Constitutional Tribunal — an action that would effectively let opposition lawmakers name the judges who would rule on Vizcarra's moves against them. Vizcarra said legislators were rushing through a process lacking in transparency and warned he would dissolve congress if they proceeded.

Peru's constitution says a president can dissolve congress if lawmakers reject two votes of confidence in his administration. Vizcarra contends a rejected confidence vote during Kuczynski's resignation counts as the first since he is continuing his predecessor's mandate. He argues that Monday's vote on new judges constitutes a second de facto rejection because he had demanded that congress first hold a vote of confidence and weigh proposed changes to the law aimed at limiting the influence of politics in selecting magistrates.

Opposition lawmakers argue his interpretation is unconstitutional. They say only clearly rejected votes of confidence should count.

The competing claims will likely have to be resolved by the very Constitutional Tribunal at the center of the dispute. Congressional leader Pedro Olaechea said it is likely to be a "lengthy, tedious and delicate legal matter."

Popular Force lawmakers refused to obey Vizcarra's decree dissolving congress. Instead, they remained in their seats and proceeded to vote in favor of suspending Vizcarra from power for a year.

The lawmakers then swore in Vice President Mercedes Aráoz as the nation's legitimate leader, who later resigned her seat. Aráoz had recently broken ranks with Vizcarra over his push to hold early congressional and presidential elections next year — an effort resisted by the opposition.

The president contends early elections are the best way to help the country move past the stalemate with congress. The push is popular with Peruvians whose trust in elected officials has plummeted.

Before resigning, Aráoz appeared to be backed by several large private business groups, while the nation's military and governors have come out supporting Vizcarra.

Six of the seven magistrates have terms that expired in July, though they continue to serve. Lawmakers contend they were following the law in starting to make the new appointments Monday.

Vizcarra and human rights organizations say that legislators chose the candidates with unusual speed and the El Comercio newspaper reported that six of the contenders are facing civil or criminal charges for offenses as serious as kidnapping or extortion.

Lawmakers on Monday selected one new magistrate — a relative of the president of congress — before suspending further votes.

The Organization of American States called on the tribunal Tuesday to weigh in on the dispute.

Vizcarra has broad support in the nation of 32 million, with one poll suggesting 75 percent are in favor of dissolving congress. That support, and the military's backing, mean Vizcarra is likely to continue as president while pushing for a new legislative vote in January 2020.

Nonetheless, he remains in a vulnerable position. Should congress prevail, legislators would continue in their posts until July 2021 and would likely move to try and impeach Vizcarra, despite repeated street protests against the lawmakers in recent months.

Analysts warn there is a high risk of social unrest, particularly if the Constitutional Tribunal rules in favor of congress and early legislative elections are called off.

NBC's Cristina Corujo-Oruña contributed to this report. 

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