EFELima

Pedro Castillo took the opportunity Wednesday of his first speech as president of Peru to say that he will ask lawmakers to pass a bill allowing the convening of a constituent assembly to craft a new constitution for the Andean nation.

"We hope it can be approved and ratified in a referendum," he said before Congress hours after taking the oath of office.

Castillo, a leftist schoolteacher with no previous experience in politics, campaigned on a promise to replace the constitution enacted in 1993 by Alberto Fujimori, now serving a life sentence for massacres carried out during his 1990-2000 regime.

The new president acknowledged that the existing charter makes no provision for convening a constituent assembly.

"Does that mean that the people are condemned to be prisoners of this constitution for the rest of their days? The answer, certainly, is no. The original constituent power emanates from the people and not from the rulers or the authorities," he said.

"I will insist on this proposal, always within the framework of the law," Castillo said, noting that it will be up to legislators to decide whether to vote for the bill.

While the president's Peru Libre party, with 37 members, is the largest bloc in the 130-seat legislature, it must forge coalitions to implement his agenda.

"Without a doubt, to achieve this goal we will have to reconcile positions with the Congress of the Republic," the 51-year-old Castillo said.

A new national charter would "change the face of the economic and social reality" of Peru by establishing gender equality and a genuinely multicultural society, he said.

If the plan for the assembly is approved, elections to the body will need to include specified percentages of candidates representing indigenous peoples, Afro-Peruvians, grassroots organizations and labor unions, the president said.

Survey results published last weekend by Lima daily El Comercio indicate that 22 percent of Peruvians want to preserve the constitution as it is, while 32 percent favor Castillo's idea of an assembly and 39 percent would prefer to see Congress make amendments to the existing document.

Castillo takes the helm at a critical moment for Peru, struggling to deal with the human and economic cost of the Covid-19 pandemic amid acute political polarization.

With nearly 200,000 deaths, Peru has the world's highest per capita mortality rate from coronavirus and the economy contracted by 11.8 percent in 2020.

The nation's first-ever president from the Andean interior came out of nowhere to emerge as one of the top two finishers in the April 11 first round before prevailing in the runoff with 50.12 percent of the vote.

It was only on July 19 that election officials proclaimed Castillo as president-elect after rejecting in their totality the myriad objections and legal challenges brought by right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori.

The daughter of Alberto Fujimori continues to insist that Castillo's campaign stole "thousands of votes" on June 6, though international observers deemed the process free and fair.

And allies of Fujimori, including some retired generals and admirals, publicly urged the military to refuse to accept Castillo as president.