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Peruvian President Swears in New Cabinet

December 15, 2003

LIMA, Peru (AP) _ With his popularity dropping, President Alejandro Toledo swore in a new Cabinet chief and several ministers Monday in an attempt to stabilize his government, days after he fired the country’s first female prime minister in the wake of a gossip-laden political scandal.

Toledo named congressman Carlos Ferrero to replace Prime Minister Beatriz Merino. Toledo also named Manuel Rodriguez foreign minister, retired army Gen. Roberto Chiabra defense minister, Jose Leon agriculture minister and Nidia Puelles women’s minister.

The president fired Merino on Friday. Despite the title, Peru’s prime minister is appointed by the president to lead his Cabinet and is not chosen by lawmakers. Toledo initially demanded the resignations of the entire Cabinet, but let only four ministers go Monday.

The firing came in the wake of a salacious scandal about Merino’s personal life. According to newspaper reports, Merino lost Toledo’s confidence by going public with allegations that a political rival was spreading rumors that she is a lesbian.

Merino, a single, 56-year-old Harvard-trained lawyer, has said she is not homosexual and that political enemies have been attacking her since she took office six months ago. Homosexuality is a taboo subject in Peru’s conservative society.

``Eight weeks ago, I was informed by several sources that people were preparing a series of attacks aiming to damage my personal reputation,″ Merino read from a statement at an airport news conference Monday after arriving in Lima from a weeklong trip to the United States.

Toledo did not mention the political upheaval Monday but thanked Merino for her service at the swearing-in ceremony for her successor. Merino did not attend the event.

``Allow me to express my deep gratitude, on a personal level and as president, to Dr. Beatriz Marino and the Cabinet she presided,″ Toledo said in the ceremony at the Government Palace.

Merino told several television journalists in off-camera meetings earlier this month that her predecessor, Congressman Luis Solari, went to the head of Peru’s Catholic Church accusing her of being a lesbian.

Solari, a prominent member in Toledo’s party, and Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani denied any meeting took place.

Meanwhile, a nationwide poll published Monday showed Toledo’s popularity has dropped to 11 percent. The Apoyo polling firm surveyed 1,639 people and reported a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

Many saw Merino as an assertive and a stabilizing force in Toledo’s weak government and credited her with boosting his popularity to 18 percent last month.

Monday’s poll also showed Merino’s approval ratings nearly three times as high as Ferrero’s 23 percent. Some 84 percent of respondents said her replacement should have been a political independent, like Merino. A majority also said they believed members of Toledo’s party _ or political allies _ were behind her downfall.

Ferrero, who headed Congress from December 2000 unit July, comes from within the ranks of Toledo’s party.

The 62-year-old career politician, however, is seen as a peacemaker.

``It is very clear that Ferrero is a person who can build bridges,″ political science professor Julio Carrion told The Associated Press in a phone interview from his office at the University of Delaware.

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