The judicial decision to jail the former mayor of Lima for 18 months while investigations continue into allegations of corruption came as no surprise. As we pointed out last week, Susana Villarán is but the latest Peruvian politician to fall victim to the bribery scandal perpetrated by Odebrecht and other Brazilian construction companies. Her lawyers will appeal the ruling.
Meanwhile Villarán joins Keiko Fujimori in the annex of the Chorillos women’s jail. The two of them may well soon be joined by Nadine Heredia, the wife of former president Ollanta Humala. While Villarán’s remand period is 18 months, Fujimori’s was twice that.
Her arrest, pending proof of wrongdoing, suggests that election-related corruption is not a prerogative of political leaders from the right and centre-right. But it remains surprising that a person such as she, a stalwart defender of democracy and human rights and a person of modest and austere lifestyle, appears to have fallen for the temptations presented by the likes of Odebrecht.
She claims that the deal was justified by the need to stand up against political mafiosi such as former Lima mayor Luis Castañeda Lossio. But as Congresswoman (and former Villarán lieutenant) Marisa Glave has pointed out, fighting one mafia hardly justifies jumping into bed with another.
Still, Villarán’s arrest charged with receiving illicit funding from Odebrecht to finance the ‘no’ campaign in the 2013 recall referendum (launched against her by Castañeda Lossio and others) and in the 2014 municipal elections, points to the broader problem of how politics are to be financed in an age when election expenses are forever increasing while at the same time the ability and willingness of militants to fund political parties is decreasing.
The reforms to the political system advanced by Fernando Tuesta and his colleagues earlier this year go some way to addressing this problem by suggesting mechanisms by which party funding should be more tightly controlled by the electoral authorities. But this cannot in itself resolve the problem.
Peruvian political contenders have long benefitted from shady sources of funding which resist scrutiny. The influence of drug money in elections has been evident ever since the 1980s when APRA’s ties to the drug mafias first came under public scrutiny. Those involved in drug trafficking and other forms of illicit activity necessarily spend money on bribing politicians and judges as a necessary cost of doing business. Further, the financial relationships between legal business operations and politicians also are generally kept off the record. And where legal business merges into the illegal is often a grey area.
Infuriated by the activities of politicians in apparently feathering their own nests, the Peruvian public are ill-disposed to the idea that parties should be financed out of government tax income.
And the idea that elections should be far more austere events clashes with the notion that the electorate needs to be fed with information as to who the candidates are and what they ostensibly stand for. Barring political advertising on television, for example, might be seen as a boon in some sense (the ultimate beneficiaries of this sort of election spending are the media empires), but it may be a constraint in another sense.
Many commentators have expressed the hope that the whole Odebrecht saga will lead to some fundamental changes in the ways in which Peruvian politics are conducted. But this may be just a pious hope. Some things will change, but the idea that the page has turned with respect to political corruption may turn out to be more than just a little optimistic.