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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.