Peru's Stacked Elections

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AFTER a slow start, the national election campaign in Peru is in full swing for the vote April 9. Posters cover the walls. Political ads, news, and talk shows abound. Loud speakers blast campaign songs. It seems like another free and fair Latin American election in the making.

For Peru, it is one more step back from the disaster that faced the country only a few years ago. The economy has been put to rights, with dramatic drops in inflation, and with growth and better international economic relations. A guerrilla threat has abated through decisive government action. Even President Alberto Fujimori's internationally denounced 1992 autogolpe (self-led coup) has been largely overcome by the political normalization embodied in the 1993 Constitution.

But appearances can be deceiving. The opposition criticizes the president's manipulations -- among them dirty tricks, tax forgiveness for the media, and a blitzkrieg of small project inaugurations. They cite 50-odd provinces still under emergency decree, which often puts military commanders in charge of local ballots. They see presidential candidate photographs on the ballot as giving the visible incumbent a huge advantage over his 13 rivals.

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Peru's 1993 Constitution, passed by a congressional majority of Fujimori supporters and narrowly approved by referendum, provides an unprecedented opportunity for the sitting elected president of Peru to run for immediate reelection. It is evident that President Fujimori is using his position to enhance his chances. He is also benefiting from widespread acknowledgment of his contributions and some people's disillusionment with traditional party politics.

Of course, there is the possibility of a last-minute backlash. This happened in 1990 to Fujimori's front-running rival, Mario Vargas Llosa. It could happen again. Many are worried about the Peru-Ecuador conflict, which broke out in late January and which many believe the Fujimori government handled badly. Indeed, a drop in support has occurred, with polls showing presidential preference ratings down to 40 percent from 50 percent. The cover of a top Peruvian weekly blared: ''Only Fraud Will Save Fuji!''

Wrong. Fujimori has an ace in the hole -- the 1993 Constitution. It is now much easier for the leading candidate to get a majority on the first round. This is important, because only the top two vote getters compete in the second round; the opposition tends to gang up on the leader, as Mr. Vargas Llosa discovered.

Fujimori's ace is the constitutional provision excluding spoiled and blank ballots from vote totals (about 16 percent). Since 21 percent of registered voters do not vote even under Peru's compulsory law, Fujimori can win an absolute majority of the valid vote on April 9 with approval ratings as low as 34 percent. Since even worst-case scenarios do not anticipate that great a dip, Fujimori seems to have the election already locked up. No fraud -- just playing by the rules ... his rules from the new Constitution.

Democratic forms will continue. This is good. However, so too will a personal and anti-institutional approach to politics. Such an approach, while perhaps successful in the short run, is incompatible with the long-term consolidation of democracy in Peru.

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