Five new cabinets in two and a half years; successive cabinet minister have had to pay the price for President Alejandro Toledo’s lasting unpopularity.

Mid-February saw the appointment of yet another new cabinet, following yet another new round of scandals involving Toledo’s inner circle — this time a taped interview between his right-hand man, César Almeyda, and the so-called paymaster of the Montesinos mafia, General Oscar Villanueva Vidal.

The main victim of the reshuffle was Fernando Olivera of the discredited Frente Independiente Moralizador (FIM), Toledo’s main ally in government and the self-promoted ‘broom’ of anti-corruption who, as many have suspected for along time, has not been as squeaky clean as he would have us believe. It seems that Olivera, Peru’s ambassador in Madrid and former justice minister, knew more than he was prepared to let on about the activities of Almeyda, the one time head of the Intelligence Bureau, who stands accused of receiving cash in return for allowing Villanueva to engage in plea bargaining.

The new cabinet brought with it an infusion of independents, following widespread calls for a more broadly based-administration. Not only did the FIM get the chop but also the number of cabinet seats reserved for members of Toledo’s Peru Posible (PP) grouping. Best known of the ‘new’ entrants (among whom the private sector is well represented) was Pedro Pablo Kuzcynski (PPK) the new finance minister. PPK held the same ministry at the beginning of the Toledo presidency, but was kicked out following the anti-privatisation riots in Arequipa of 2002.

Although the reshuffle led to a slight increase in Toledo’s otherwise abysmal popularity ratings, it is unlikely to result in the much-needed permanent boost that his government so urgently requires. Many had called for Toledo to take a back seat from now on and let his prime minister, Carlos Ferrero, take control of the day-to-day management of government.

This is as if Peru had a parliamentary system of government in which there is a separation between the head of state and the head of government. Such is not the case. Peru has a highly centralised, presidential system, where the two roles are combined in the same person, and that person is expected to run the show for the duration of the five years for which he (or she) is elected. There is no formal procedure for shortening the president’s term of office — however unpopular or discredited he (or she) may be — unless s/he formally resigns the office along with his/her two vice-presidents (as happened in 2001).

Notwithstanding the country’s political traditions, some commentators are beginning to advocate the adoption of a more parliamentary system which would allow a head of government who loses public confidence to resign.

Paradoxically, Toledo’s weakness is perhaps his strongest card. His removal would be deeply unsettling for democracy in Peru. The role currently being played by the ujimontesinos mafia in destabilising the Toledo government remains unclear, though cui bono these shadowy influences stand to gain most from a collapse of the present regime. The Almeyda affair suggests that the release of information on government corruption can have a highly destabilising effect.

Toledo’s main line of defence is that he is democracy and that his premature fall would be a victory for the mafia and a devastating blow to the country’s weak democratic institutions. But the cost of this is that the next two years — between now and the spring 2006 elections — will be ones of continued policy drift and lack of political leadership.

In this context, the opposition parties have a difficult role to play. On the one hand, they need to distance themselves from Toledo and his people, avoiding the sort of explicit backing that the government needs. They want to reach 2006 with their credentials intact. On the other, they need to prevent a political collapse at all costs. As for much of the last two-and-a-half previous years, Toledo seems set to remain a figure gently twisting in the wind.