LIMA, Peru — Peru’s congress voted on Friday to begin impeachment hearings against President Martín Vizcarra over allegations of obstruction of justice, a move that could result in his swift removal from office just as the country faces one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks.
The political crisis was set off by the release in Congress on Thursday of audio recordings that appear to show the president instructing officials to lie about an influence-peddling scandal.
The impeachment is the latest battle in the protracted standoff between Mr. Vizcarra, a popular centrist former governor, and a divided congress hostile to his attempts to pass anti-corruption measures and change the country’s judicial and political system.
In January, the tension led to a snap congressional election. Now the standoff could interfere with the country’s response to the coronavirus.
Despite enacting swift pandemic measures, Peru now has the highest number of deaths per capita from the coronavirus in the world. Its economy, once the region’s fastest growing, is now expected to contract 12 percent this year, according to a government forecast, leading to what would be the deepest recession in a century.
Mr. Vizcarra said the audio recordings had been manipulated, and denied they constituted anything illegal, much less grounds for impeachment.
“This is a lie that seeks to destabilize democracy and take control of the government,” Mr. Vizcarra said. “If you want to impeach me, here I am, with my conscience at ease.”
If he is ousted, the current president of congress, Manuel Merino, a right-wing businessman opposed to Mr. Vizcarra, would become the president.
On Friday, 65 lawmakers in the 130-member body voted to start proceedings against Mr. Vizcarra, though not all members voted. The president’s opponents in congress will ultimately need 87 votes to remove him.
Accusations of political corruption have long been used to settle political scores in Peru, which has struggled to build democratic institutions after decades of military and authoritarian rulers. Mr. Vizcarra’s four predecessors have all been investigated or charged with corruption.
One, Alan García, committed suicide last year as police arrived at his house to arrest him in a graft investigation.
Instead of routing out the deep-seated culture of graft, however, the politicized investigations of top officials have reduced the country’s stability and foiled much-needed reforms.
“All of Vizcarra’s energy goes into putting out political fires, limiting the government’s ability to implement policies demanded by the people,” said Jimena Blanco, chief analyst on the Americas at Verisk Maplecroft, a political risk consultancy.
A former vice president, Mr. Vizcarra took office in 2018 when his predecessor resigned to avoid impeachment in a graft scandal. Since then, Mr. Vizcarra has had a rocky relationship with lawmakers, who have blocked his anti-corruption proposals.
These proposals, however, have made Mr. Vizcarra one of the country’s most popular recent presidents, allowing him to cultivate an image as a reformer who is independent of the country’s corrupt elites.
He has filled his cabinet with technical experts, distancing himself from the influence-peddling of the country’s traditional parties.
When the pandemic arrived, he responded by rolling out mass testing, and some of the region’s strictest quarantine measures and most comprehensive economic aid packages.
Peru’s deep inequality and poor health care system, however, soon overwhelmed his pandemic measures, breeding growing discontent with the country’s political system. More than 30,000 Peruvians have died in the pandemic.