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The Economist: Peru’s providential president

Martín Vizcarra attempts to reform his country

PERUVIANS take a dim view of their presidents. The past four, after brief honeymoons, were generally despised. So it is all the more notable that Martín Vizcarra, the current holder of the job, is often greeted with spontaneous applause. This is testament to Mr Vizcarra’s skill in embracing the cause of fighting corruption. Having raised expectations, he now has to meet them.

Mr Vizcarra took over in March when Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, whom he had served as vice-president, resigned to avoid impeachment over a conflict-of-interest scandal and an attempt by allies to bribe an opposition lawmaker. The auguries were bleak. Although Mr Vizcarra had done well as governor of a small region on the south coast, he was barely known nationally. Like Mr Kuczynski, he faced an obstructive congress controlled by Popular Force (FP), the party of Keiko Fujimori, who never accepted her narrow defeat in the presidential election in 2016.

But events offered Mr Vizcarra an opportunity. Leaked tapes showed contacts between parts of the judiciary, organised crime and some members of FP. This came as the judiciary was investigating four former presidents for possible corruption, a spillover from the Lava Jato scandals in Brazil. In July Mr Vizcarra proposed four constitutional reforms—one of the judiciary, the others to the political system. He wants these to be approved by congress and then submitted to a referendum on December 9th. When congress tarried, this month he threatened to make approval of the reforms an issue of confidence in his cabinet. Congress last year censured Mr Kuczynski’s cabinet; if it censured Mr Vizcarra’s, in theory at least, he could call a fresh legislative election.

The threat seemed to work. Congress quickly approved the judicial reform. César Villanueva, Mr Vizcarra’s prime minister, says he is “confident” the others will follow. This leaves two questions: whether the reforms will really remedy Peru’s institutional weakness, and whether Mr Vizcarra’s gambit marks the end of Ms Fujimori’s control of the political agenda.

The judicial reform sets up a new board to select and supervise judges and prosecutors. Its predecessor was politicised, poorly designed and penetrated by criminal interests. The new board will be selected on merit in a public contest organised by a committee of authorities, including the head of the supreme court and the chief prosecutor. A similar system has worked fairly well in Peru to appoint the heads of regulatory agencies.

There may be problems. The chief prosecutor featured on the leaked tapes. He faces an investigation in congress. “No way” will he be a member of the committee, says Mr Villanueva. The reform misses an opportunity to adopt a better practice, used increasingly by other countries, in which judicial supervisory bodies are elected by judges rather than judicial authorities, says Diego García Sayan, a former justice minister who now advises the UN on judicial independence.

Other government proposals would recreate a senate, abolished by Ms Fujimori’s father, Alberto, who ruled Peru as an autocrat in the 1990s, and give constitutional status to a law banning corporate donations to political parties. These are sensible in principle, though much will depend on the detail. A senate of 30 members and a lower house of 100 look small for a country of 31m people, though officials say those numbers are negotiable.

One measure is retrograde: banning the re-election of legislators. The argument against re-electing presidents—that the incumbent has an unfair advantage—applies less to congress, where experience may serve the public interest. In practice, Peruvians re-elect only a quarter of their legislators anyway. But congress is in disrepute. Many of its members are seen as self-serving or bent. Officials admit this measure is the price of rallying public support for the package as a whole.

What Mr Vizcarra has already gained is the thing that eluded his predecessor: the political initiative. He has done so by mobilising anti-fujimorismo, a diffuse but powerful sentiment. It helps that Ms Fujimori has forfeited much of her public support. Having feuded with her brother, thus splitting her party and depriving it of its majority in congress, she is widely seen as vengeful.

The referendum is just “the start of a process of change and reform” to achieve “legal security and political stability”, says Mr Villanueva. “It’s obvious that none of these things comes magically.” Next month’s municipal and regional elections show as much. Nearly all of the 100,000 candidates are nonentities. Restoring Peruvians’ faith in democracy will take time, but at least it may have started.

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