With four former presidents embroiled in corruption scandals, Peru’s President Martín Vizcarra described 2019 as the year of the fight against corruption and impunity. But in an unfortunate twist that was sadly predictable, an inquiry has been opened into Vizcarra's own dealings with Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, potentially leaving his crusade dead on arrival.
The year had started brightly. On January 9, alongside Prime Minister César Villanueva and Justice Minister Vicente Zeballos, Vizcarra signed into law constitutional reforms which had been voted on by the Peruvian people in December 2018.
These include revamping the appointment of magistrates and prosecutors, halting the immediate reelection of lawmakers to Congress after a five-year term, and instituting regulations to government financing of political parties.
Vizcarra’s pledge to combat corruption in the country began in July 2018 when he proposed dismantling the former National Judiciary Council after scandalous reports revealed that members of the council had been involved in corrupt activities.
The measure, which was widely supported by the national congress, consequently paved the way for the creation of a new selection board, responsible for the selection, appointment, sanctioning and ratification of judges and prosecutors at all levels.
InSight Crime Analysis
When Vizcarra arrived to power, the reputation of the Peruvian presidency was in tatters. Former President Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006) is a fugitive from Interpol, living in the United States and fighting an extradition order on charges of having received $20 million in bribes from Odebrecht. Alan García, the two-time president (1985-1990, 2006-2011) and perennial political comeback king, is banned from leaving the country on suspicion of corruption in the building of Lima's metro, despite an aborted attempt to seek asylum at the Uruguayan embassy in November.
Ollanta Humala (2011-2016) stands charged with receiving at least $3 million from Odebrecht for his election campaign, at the behest of his wife, Nadine Heredia. Vizcarra's predecessor, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, resigned in March 2018 after seemingly lying about previous business ties to the Brazilian firm as well as being accused of vote-buying.
And, for years, it has been rather common for embattled elites in Peru to receive either light sentences or no punishment at all. Such was the case in 2014, when more than 115 political candidates were linked and investigated for ties with drug trafficking, however, almost no one was convicted.
The task facing Vizcarra was momentous, therefore. His actions in his first year of office seemed to highlight a commitment to combat corruption in a country, which ranks 105th out of 180, in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.
But in January, allegations emerged against Vizcarra himself. A congressional oversight committee has opened an investigation into a possible link between a local company of whom Vizcarra was previously part-owner of and the Brazilian construction firm. The president has denied the allegations and has stated that “[he is] not afraid at all."
Despite the announcement of this investigation on January 16, a poll conducted since shows that Vizcarra maintained a 60 percent approval rating in the country.
Large street protests against the entire political spectrum were seen when Vizcarra took office. However, he seemed able to rally the population behind him, with almost 80 percent of Peruvians approving the constitutional reforms that he proposed last December.
This social pressure has undoubtedly allowed Vizcarra to take rapid strides and he seems keen on continuing this momentum in 2019. Certainly, his reforms, such as the creation of the JNJ and his fight to extradite fugitive officials back to Peru, are laudable.
However, one thing is clear, the scandal into Vizcarra's own dealings risks bringing him down in a country that is already fed up, and wrecking any real chance at reforming Peru's political system.