Manuel Merina
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Peru’s speaker of congress assumes presidency amid tense protests

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Speaker of Congress Manuel Merino assumed office Tuesday as Peru’s third president in four years, amid street protests and market jitters after the impeachment of Martin Vizcarra over corruption allegations.

Merino, a businessman and member of the center-right Popular Action party, will serve as interim president until July, following the already-scheduled April 11 elections.

In a speech after the swearing-in ceremony, Merino, 59, sought to temper widespread concerns of pending political chaos in the world’s No. 2 copper producer, promising an orderly transition and elections.

“There is nothing to celebrate here, this is a difficult moment for the country,” Merino told Peruvians. “Our first commitment before the country is to confirm our democratic convictions, and our respect for the election timetable.”

Merino’s ascension to the presidency came after Peru’s opposition-led Congress voted overwhelmingly to oust the centrist Vizcarra late on Monday after an impeachment trial over allegations of bribery, the second such trial he has faced in two months.

Police clashed with demonstrators in the streets outside the Congress building in Lima as the little-known Merino was sworn in.

Police and local media reported some 30 people arrested and an unspecified number of injuries, with authorities firing tear gas.

The IDL Reporteros news site reported a number of people hurt by pellets fired by police. Clashes also occurred in the cities of Arequipa and Cusco.

Vizcarra was dismissed in an impeachment vote late Monday, and on Tuesday he questioned the “legality and legitimacy” of his removal.

“Legality is in question because the Constitutional Court has not yet ruled and legitimacy is given by the people,” he told reporters outside his home in the capital.

He said earlier he was leaving with his head “held high” despite allegations of bribe-taking that date from when he was governor of his native southern Moquegua region. He denied any wrongdoing.

Merino, 59, takes power for the remainder of Vizcarra’s original term through July 2021, and immediately pledged to respect the electoral timetable.

Peru is set to hold general and presidential elections in April 2021.

Vizcarra survived a previous impeachment vote in September charged with “moral incapacity.”

Call for unity

After months of internal jousting between the presidency and his opponents in Congress, Merino used his first speech as president to call for national unity.

Constitutionally, succession fell to Merino because Peru has not replaced vice-president Mercedes Araoz, who resigned a year ago in the wake of a separate political crisis.

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