Demonstrators demand 'justice' from the government of President Dina Boluarte, whom they blame for the deaths in the days of protests

Lima (AFP) - Peru’s Congress on Monday debated a bill to bring forward elections in a bid to end weeks of protests that have left dozens dead, but after hours of discussions left the vote for another day.

The debate was suspended after more than seven hours of talk and will resume Tuesday at 11:00 am (1600 GMT), the legislature said in a statement.

The South American country has been embroiled in a political crisis with near-daily street protests since December 7, when then-president Pedro Castillo was arrested after attempting to dissolve Congress and rule by decree.

In seven weeks of demonstrations, 48 people – including one police officer – have been killed in clashes between security forces and protesters, according to the Ombudsman’s Office of Peru.

The unrest is coming mainly from poor, rural Indigenous people from southern Peru who had identified Castillo as one of their own who would fight to end poverty, racism and inequality.

Dozens of roadblocks have been set up by protesters, causing a shortage of food and fuel in some southern areas as they demand that Castillo’s replacement, President Dina Boluarte, step down.

Boluarte has urged Congress to act.

Last month, lawmakers moved up elections due in 2026 to April 2024, but as the protests have shown no sign of abating, Boluarte now wants them held this year – a call that Congress rejected late Friday.

“Vote for Peru, for the country, by moving the elections up to 2023,” the president said in an address to the nation on Sunday.

Lawmakers “have a chance to win the country’s trust,” she said.

Last week’s vote on bringing elections forward to October was defeated by 65 votes against with just 45 in favor, and two abstentions.

If reconvened lawmakers again refuse to advance elections, Boluarte has said she will propose a constitutional reform allowing a first voting round to be held in October and a runoff in December.

Protesters are demanding immediate elections, the dissolution of Congress and a new constitution.

In the Lima suburb of Huaycan, hundreds of people marched on Monday chanting: “No more deaths, Dina quit now.”

Dozens of soldiers headed to Ica, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Lima, to support police in clearing roadblocks on the vital Panamericana Sur highway that connects the south to major cities further north.

Weeks of road blockages have caused shortages of food, fuel and other basic supplies countrywide.

- First death in Lima -

According to a survey by the Institute of Peruvian Studies, 73 percent of Peruvians want elections this year.

Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest against the government of Peruvian President Dina Boluarte in Lima on January 28, 2023

Monday’s congressional sitting coincided with a wake for Victor Santisteban, 55, a demonstrator who died Saturday after receiving blunt force trauma to the head, according to a medical report.

Santisteban’s death was the first recorded in the capital Lima since the protests started.

According to the human rights ombudsman’s office, Saturday’s protest in the capital saw at least seven people hospitalized after police used tear gas on demonstrators hurling stones and cement pieces.

Geronimo Lopez, leader of the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers, said protesters would “not cease their struggle” until Boluarte steps down, and called for a national march Tuesday.

Boluarte, who as Castillo’s vice president was constitutionally mandated to replace him, has insisted that “nobody has any interest in clinging to power.”

Peru's Congress rejected a request by embattled President Dina Boluarte to bring forward elections to December 2023

Apart from those who have died in protests, 10 civilians – including two babies – died when they were unable to get medical treatment or medicine due to roadblocks, according to the ombudsman’s office said.

The protest movement has affected Peru’s vital tourism industry, forcing the closure of the world-renowned Machu Picchu Inca citadel ruins.

In the district of Poroy, some 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from Cusco, some 300 people queued Monday to buy a gas bottle for domestic use.

“There are people here queuing since 3.00 am… I have not had any gas for two weeks,” 33-year-old housewife Gabriela Alvarez told AFP.

“We have had to go back in time to cook with firewood and charcoal which hurts the lungs,” she said.

Peru’s Las Bambas copper mine – responsible for some two percent of global supply of the metal – said Monday it would have to halt production starting Wednesday unless the roadblocks are lifted.

Chinese owner MMG said in a statement that “after transportation interruptions that affected both entry and exit traffic, (the company) has been forced to start a progressive slowdown of its Las Bambas operation due to a shortage of critical supplies.”