LIMA, Peru — When President Martín Vizcarra pledged in his inauguration speech in March to fight “at any cost” the corruption braking Peru’s economic growth and undermining faith in its democratic institutions, the response here was a collective shrug.
For as long as most Peruvians can remember, incoming heads of state have made similar promises but then done little to actually tackle the cancer of systemic graft. Meanwhile, Vizcarra, who had been serving as vice president as well as ambassador to Canada before replacing disgraced leader Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, was widely viewed as an accidental president. He appeared to lack the charisma needed to confront Peru’s entrenched interests, particularly the conservative Popular Force party of Keiko Fujimori, which dominates the legislature and fervently defends the status quo.
But Vizcarra’s decisive response to a graft scandal engulfing the highest tiers of the judiciary — proposing a referendum to reform the political and legal systems — has some Peruvians talking of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore integrity to public life and revive citizens’ waning faith in democracy.
For them, the referendum holds the promise of shaking up an institutional landscape in which bribery is rampant, the courts frequently reach surprise verdicts that favor apparent criminals, and Peru’s Congress lurches from one scandal to another, to the point where its approval rating is close to dipping into single digits.
The proposed plebiscite also appears to cleverly break the deadlock created by a weak executive besieged by a hostile legislature that has plagued Peru since the July 2016 elections. According to a study by anti-graft group Transparency International, the judiciary and Congress are viewed, by far, as Peru’s two most corrupt institutions.
The referendum, which must be approved by Congress, would allow Peruvians to vote to strictly regulate the private financing of political parties; reform the National Council of Magistrates (CNM), the panel that appoints judges and prosecutors; prohibit the reelection of members of Congress; and create a senate to act as a check on Peru’s current single legislative chamber.
Marisa Glave, a leftist lawmaker previously critical of Vizcarra, praised his tactical sidestepping of the “obstructionism” of the Fujimori loyalists: “The president managed something brilliant. He has connected with the people in a society that is both fed up with corruption but also deeply apolitical. It has put the Fujimoristas in check.”
Samuel Rotta, head of the Peruvian chapter of Transparency International, agreed. “This is a very important opportunity, one that is unlike previous opportunities because, in part, the president appears genuinely committed.”
He predicts that the Popular Force, which achieved its congressional majority despite taking only 36 percent of the popular vote, will feel politically obliged to approve the referendum bill, although it may seek to delay and dilute it.
Some Fujimorista members of Congress have already proposed adding new questions to the referendum, including the death penalty for pedophiles and a ban on same-sex civil unions. Jurists say both measures would be illegal under the Peruvian constitution.
Daniel Salaverry, Popular Force member and speaker of Congress, has avoided commenting on the merits of the referendum proposals, tweeting that the party wanted to consult policy experts, although he has said he will “prioritize” the referendum bill.
Other Fujimorista lawmakers have been more critical, however. One, Lourdes Alcorta, tweeted that the proposals for a second chamber and to end congressional reelection were “absurd” and “populist idiocies.”
The latest corruption scandal broke last month with a leaked recording of a Supreme Court justice who appeared to be negotiating a bribe from a convicted child abuser. At first, the justice, César Hinostroza, is heard asking whether the victim, thought to be 11 years old, had been “deflowered.” Then he inquires whether the perpetrator wanted to be acquitted or simply have his sentence reduced. Hinostroza subsequently said that his remarks were taken out of context and that he was not negotiating a bribe. He has been suspended from his job.
That recording proved to be just the first of many, made by Peru’s anti-narcotics Constellation surveillance program and leaked to the press, that have caused a political earthquake in the Andean nation. Subsequent tapes have revealed a web of favors and influence-peddling in the judiciary.
The revelations have led to the resignation of the head of the Supreme Court, the firing of the justice minister and all seven members of the magistrates’ council, the ouster of the head of the electoral agency ONPE, and the arrests of at least 20 judges.
Attorney General Gonzalo Chávarry is also under heavy pressure to step down after having been shown to be particularly friendly with some of his compromised colleagues and having apparently lied about his behind-the-scenes lobbying of sympathetic journalists to counter widespread questioning of his probity.
Chávarry subsequently said his denial of a meeting with reporters — which the tapes prove did take place — was intended to protect the integrity of his office.
“He has lost all legitimacy,” Rotta said of the attorney general.
Vizcarra is viewed as an honest but dour former regional governor chosen as a running mate by Kuczynski to add provincial balance to the ticket. Some analysts believe his bold move in calling for the referendum may have been motivated by political necessity. During his first three months in office, the president carefully avoided antagonizing the Popular Force — and watched as his approval rating cratered.
In recent days Vizcarra described Peru’s justice system as having “collapsed” and expressed his support for anti-corruption demonstrations that have been sweeping the country. “I stand with all those who protest for justice, for democracy, those who want to eradicate corruption and get rid of the corrupt,” the president said.
There is now a lively debate about the merits of Vizcarra’s proposals, particularly the move to prevent lawmakers from being reelected. “A good legislature needs the experience of veterans as well as the energy of new members. What is really important is avoiding political bosses in Congress,” says Gustavo Gorriti, a well-known investigative journalist who first obtained the recordings.
Rotta agrees, although he regards the reelection ban, which has proved wildly popular, as a smart tactical ploy by Vizcarra given the level of public outrage at Congress. “It’s a political proposal,” he said, “not a technical one.”
Yet whether it and the other proposals become law may now be less significant than the fact that a sitting president has finally staked out a strong position against graft and reached over the heads of lawmakers to attempt to respond to the public’s fury.