Ahead of an impeachment vote by Congress, Pedro Castillo tried to dissolve the government and seize power. The attempt ended with his ouster and arrest.
LIMA, Peru — It was a day on which much of Peru was focused on Congress, where an impeachment vote was planned against the president on corruption charges.
But shortly before noon, the Peruvian leader addressed the country in a surprise televised address. He announced the dissolution of Congress and the installation of an emergency government, stunning political leaders across the spectrum, including his own allies, by effectively trying to carry out what was widely condemned as an attempted coup to cling to power.
Government officials resigned en masse. The top court declared the move unconstitutional. And the country’s armed forces and the national police issued a joint statement suggesting they would not support him.
By day’s end, Pedro Castillo, 53, was ousted from power and under arrest. His vice president was sworn in as president and became the first woman to lead Peru.
It was a cinematic conclusion to Mr. Castillo’s presidency, the first leftist to be elected Peru’s president in more than a generation. The former farmer, teacher and union activist had campaigned last year on a pledge to transform the ailing economy and reverse the high rates of poverty among rural Peruvians, which had worsened during the pandemic.
But his attempt to seize power echoed a similar move by former President Alberto Fujimori 30 years ago. Like Mr. Castillo, Mr. Fujimori was a populist outsider who was elected democratically in 1990. Two years later, he staged a coup to shut down Congress with the support of the military, and ruled as a dictator until 2000. He is now in prison on charges of corruption and human rights abuses.
But Peru has continued to be convulsed by years of high-level corruption scandals resulting in six presidents since 2016. Twice before during Mr. Castillo’s 16 months in power Congress had tried to oust him, but failed to garner enough votes for an impeachment.
Mr. Castillo was one of several leftists in Latin America who had been swept into power by votes disillusioned by the establishment, fed up with decades of inequality, high unemployment and an elite political class tainted by years of corruption and infighting.
But he appeared uninterested in making good on his campaign promises and was quickly confronted by a cascading stream of obstacles that paralyzed his administration, including high-level corruption scandals, criminal investigations and cabinet turnover.
What to Know About the Ousting of Peru’s President
Who is Pedro Castillo? The left-wing Peruvian president was elected in 2021 after campaigning on a promise to address the country’s chronic inequality. But in less than a year and a half in office, Mr. Castillo has been plagued by corruption scandals. Peru’s Congress voted to oust him after critics accused him of attempting a coup.
Mr. Castillo churned through more than 80 ministers and filled many posts with political allies lacking relevant experience, some of whom have faced investigations for corruption, domestic violence and murder.
Prosecutors accused him of leading a criminal organization with lawmakers and family members to profit off government contracts and of repeatedly obstructing justice, sometimes seemingly in plain view — such as when his daughter disappeared from the presidential palace as she faced arrest and his office later claimed that footage that would have captured the moment went missing.
The president’s approval rating slumped to 19 percent in Lima, though in rural areas it remained at 45 percent, just four percentage points lower than a year ago, according to polls last month by the Institute of Peruvian Studies.
Congress scheduled a third impeachment vote last week after Mr. Castillo threatened to dissolve Congress last month.
It was just hours before that vote when Mr. Castillo announced the dissolution of Congress and the installation of an emergency government to rule by decree, while also imposing an immediate national curfew.
“We have taken the decision to establish an emergency government, to reestablish the rule of law and democracy to which effect the following measures are dictated: to dissolve Congress temporarily, to install a government of exceptional emergency, to call to the shortest term possible to elections for a new Congress with the ability to draft a new Constitution,” Mr. Castillo said.
Mr. Castillo’s declaration plunged the fragile democracy into its biggest political crisis in years. Twice, Congress had tried to oust Mr. Castillo from power, but failed to garner enough votes for an impeachment.
But it quickly became apparent that his announcement had little support, prompting the mass resignation of many of his top cabinet members, a fire hose of denunciations from political opponents and constitutional experts and a joint statement from the armed forces and the police suggesting that he lacked any legal right to carry out his decree.
“We reject the breaking of constitutional order and we urge the population to respect the political constitution, remain calm and trust state institutions,” the police later said in a separate statement.
The U.S. Embassy in Lima also condemned Mr. Castillo. “The United States emphatically urges President Castillo to reverse his attempt to close Congress and allow democratic institutions in Peru to work according to the constitution,” the embassy said in a tweet. “We encourage the Peruvian public to stay calm during this uncertain time.”
The president’s declaration seemed to shock even Mr. Castillo’s closest allies.
“I am a defender of the democratic order, of the Constitution and I am deeply convinced that politics cannot be above the law,” Benji Espinoza, who was the president’s personal lawyer until he resigned Wednesday, told RPP, a local radio station.
Mr. Castillo had seemingly been considering such a move for some time. Last month, he publicly threatened to dissolve Congress and had quietly tried to survey military leaders about supporting him, according to local media outlets.
After his defense minister resigned on Saturday, citing personal reasons, rumors of a military coup — in favor of and against Mr. Castillo — went viral on social media, leading some opposition lawmakers to stay the night in Congress on Sunday for fear of a violent attempt by the armed forces to close the chamber. No such attempt was made. By Tuesday, the head of Peru’s army had also resigned, citing personal reasons.
On Wednesday, just two hours after Mr. Castillo’s announcement, Congress convened and voted to impeach the president. Lawmakers voted 101-6 with 10 abstentions to remove him from power.
He was seen leaving the presidential palace in a car that later entered a police station, and on Wednesday night the prosecutor’s office said it had directed his arrest on charges of “rebellion.”
Shortly after the congressional vote, Vice President Dina Boluarte was sworn in as Peru’s new leader.
“It is up to us to talk, to engage in dialogue, to reach agreements,” she said after she was sworn in before lawmakers who applauded and cheered her. “I ask for time to rescue our country from corruption and incompetence within the government.”
Ms. Boluarte, 60, called for a truce between Peru’s political parties in order to reestablish national unity and return the country to a path of economic growth.
A former lawyer and a member of a Marxist political party until she was pushed out last year for criticizing the party leader, Ms. Boluarte ran on Mr. Castillo’s ticket last year. She served as both his vice president and his minister of development and social inclusion, but resigned from the ministry after the president formed his last cabinet last month.
Ms. Boluarte is not particularly well-known, and in a recent poll, Peruvians favored new general elections over her replacing Mr. Castillo in office in a scenario in which he was impeached.
Former President Martín Vizcarra, the only Peruvian leader to be successfully ousted before Mr. Castillo, left office after the vote in 2020, but filed an appeal before the Constitutional Tribunal, which declined to weigh in on its legality.
The next president lasted less than a week in office, and his successor governed Peru for the next eight months, until Mr. Castillo took office.
Genevieve Glatsky contributed reporting from Bogotá, Colombia, and Elda Cantú from Mexico City.