It is perhaps a sign of the times that President Martín Vizcarra, in his speech to Congress on 28 July, decided to appeal to the people, over the head of Congress, for approval of a programme of political and judicial reforms. He announced the calling of referendums to promote a radical package of reforms.

Unsurprisingly, given the evidence of judicial corruption that has emerged over the last few weeks, Vizcarra said that he would be proposing changes to the way in which the Consejo Nacional de Magistratura (CNM) is selected. These will require an amendment to the constitution. He will propose that, in future, the CNM, the body which appoints and dismisses judges and other key state office-holders, will be chosen on the basis of merit, not nominations by professional bodies.

“In current conditions” he said “the only way of achieving this [reform] is with clear support from the citizenry, which is indignant at what the audios have revealed, the favours, the under-the-table dealings that have benefited a few, but at the expense of all, especially the weakest”.

He also announced that political reforms, suggested by numerous professional observers but opposed by the majority in Congress, would also be subjected to referendums. These include whether or not members of Congress should be re-elected, whether political parties should be allowed to receive donations from private sources, and whether or not a second chamber (abolished by the 1993 Fujimori constitution) should be restored.

Vizcarra’s announcement is a bold move designed to respond to the institutionalised corruption that has emerged in recent years from a litany of scandals. The Odebrecht bribery scandals pointed to the ways in which the financing of political party activity was conducted in the interests of Brazilian construction firms. The audio tapes that have occupied headlines over the last month provide clear evidence of malpractice in the judicial branch.

Meanwhile, the campaign by Fuerza Popular (FP), the Fujimorista party, to use its majority in Congress to discredit ministers and to exploit weaknesses in the judicial system to partisan ends has further discredited political activity in the eyes of most voters.

By a direct appeal to the people, the proposed referendums thus lay down a gauntlet to the Fujimoristas which they may find hard to respond to.

Vizcarra only became president four months ago. While initially appearing subservient to Fuerza Popular (FP), he has in recent weeks taken a bolder and more independent line, attacking the so-called ‘Gagging Law’ (Ley Mordaza) and attempts to protect financial cooperatives (used as ducts for money laundering) from rigorous state regulation. The release of the judiciary audios then pushed him into sacking his Fujimorista-sympathising justice minister and appointing a high-level commission to suggest judicial reforms.

It was telling that Vizcarra began his speech to Congress by referring to the institutional corruption that came to light during the Fujimori government in the 1990s. He reminded his listeners about the so-called Vladivideos, which showed Fujimori’s factotum, Vladimiro Montesinos, dishing out wads of cash to buy political support from legislators, media interests and others.

In another challenge to the Fujimorista opposition, Vizcarra also made clear in his speech his support for a strategy of gender equality in Peru. “We’re going to give an immediate response, geared towards prevention, protection and heeding [gender needs]” he said “We have to correct this machista culture and eradicate it from our families, protect the victims [of sexual violence] and punish firmly the criminals [responsible].

How FP and the Fujimoristas respond to Vizcarra’s referendum initiative will become clearer in the days that follow. Some leading members of FP have already sown doubts as to the legality of Vizcarra’s referendum proposals.