Peru’s president has launched a high-stakes gamble to push through stalled anti-corruption measures, challenging the opposition-dominated congress to back the reform or face fresh elections.
Martín Vizcarra invoked a constitutional procedure which could allow him to dissolve the chamber and call new legislative elections if its members fail to deliver a vote of confidence in his cabinet on Wednesday.
Under Peru’s constitution, lawmakers can only dismiss two cabinets formed by a single administration. The current congress voted down one cabinet last year under the former president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who resigned in March rather than face impeachment over corruption allegations.
Vizcarra, then the vice-president, replaced him after less than 20 months in a five-year term.
Vizcarra’s move comes as the fight against corruption dominates South America’s political agenda: in Brazil, dozens of senior politicians and businessmen have been caught in corruption allegations, and the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was recently forced to drop out of the race for next month’s elections; in Argentina the former president Cristina Fernández has been charged in a bribery scandal; meanwhile Guatemala is on the brink of a constitutional crisis as the president Jimmy Morales confronts the country’s courts over a UN-backed anti-corruption panel.
Vizcarra, a former regional governor who came to office with no political party and few connections, capitalized on overwhelming public anger about corruption following a scandal in July to table four bills to deter graft and call for a referendum on judicial reform and lawmakers’ term limits.
But in an address to Peruvians on Sunday, he said lawmakers had dragged their feet in approving the anti-corruption laws.
“I’m not disconnected from your indignation, I make it my own, I share it,” Vizcarra said. “Enough of buying and selling rights and letting the crimes which violate our laws and sicken our society go unpunished.”
Public indignation came to a head in July when a slew of wiretapped phone calls between judges, suspected criminals and power-brokers revealed routine meddling in the criminal justice system and links between the main political parties and organised crime.
The recordings also implicated the electoral agency and Fuerza Popular, the main opposition party led by Keiko Fujimori, a former presidential candidate and daughter of the former autocrat Alberto Fujimori, who was pardoned and released from jail last year.
Fujimori is under investigation for alleged money laundering linked to campaign donations from the Brazilian company Odebrecht.
Links to Odebrecht have already toppled one Peruvian leader. Kuczynski was the first sitting president in Latin America to be forced out due to ties with the firm, which has been at the centre of the continent’s biggest corruption scandal.
Some opposition politicians have accused Vizcarra of using the confidence vote to stage a legislative coup d’état, but the political commentator and journalist Augusto Álvarez Rodrich said the president was tapping into deep frustration with political graft.
“(Vizcarra) is constructing a power base through his relation with the people who are very angry about corruption in the country,” said Álvarez Rodrich.
Meanwhile Fujimori has seen her public disapproval rating rise to 84%, according to the pollster Datum.