Peru is no democracy

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President Alberto Fujimori is almost sure to win his third term in Peru's April presidential elections. But, unlike his two earlier victories, these elections aren't even close to being free or fair. His decision to run violates the country's constitution - or, at least, it appears that way to everyone but the president's political allies and the handpicked judges who permitted his candidacy for a third five-year term.

There is no question that Mr. Fujimori has been an extraordinarily successful leader. Indeed, if he'd chosen to govern democratically and respect the rule of law, he'd now be leaving office as a distinguished statesman - one of Peru's and Latin America's greatest presidents ever.

One notable triumph of his administration was to restore personal security to Peru's ordinary citizens by defeating two virulent guerrilla movements, which were terrorizing the country and threatening its integrity.

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Another was the conquering of hyperinflation, which had left the country bankrupt and most of its people in desperate poverty. Since Fujimori's first election in 1990, Peru's economy has grown by an average of 5 percent a year, a record exceeded in Latin America only by Chile and Argentina.

Fujimori also deserves much credit for resolving Peru's bitter, long-standing border dispute with Ecuador, which had recently broken into armed conflict. The production of illegal narcotics has also been sharply reduced during his presidency.

But Fujimori will not be celebrated as a great president because he has not been a democrat. He closed down Congress and the courts in 1992 - less than two years after he took power. Although they were reopened a short time later, those institutions have largely done the president's bidding ever since. The press has been muffled, and political opponents are routinely harassed and sometimes jailed. The Army and security services wield considerable power.

This isn't to say Peru has been transformed into an oppressive police state - on the order, for example, of Pinochet's Chile, Somoza's Nicaragua, or Castro's Cuba. The country retains important democratic elements. Opposition activity is permitted. Political institutions, including the congress, judiciary, political parties, and labor unions, retain some measure of independence. Harsh repression isn't used as an instrument of political or social control, and human rights violations have declined sharply since the defeat of the guerrilla insurgencies.

Yet neither does Peru meet the minimal standards to be called a democracy. With the strong support of the armed forces, Fujimori tightly controls political power and usually gets his way.

The limits on democratic politics in Peru are amply demonstrated by the current electoral campaign. Four years ago, the Fujimori-dominated congress passed a law declaring that his first election in 1990 did not count against the two-term limit spelled out in the constitution - giving him, in essence, the right to pursue a third term. When Peru's constitutional tribunal - created by Fujimori's 1993 constitution and given the final say on all constitutional matters - concluded congress had overstepped its bounds, the offending justices were removed and never replaced, thereby shutting down the tribunal.

A report issued two weeks ago by two US observer groups, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Carter Center concluded that "political conditions for free and fair elections have not yet been established." They noted the enormous difference in media access between Fujimori and his opposition; the biased media coverage, including insulting and defamatory attacks against opposition candidates and parties; the open harassment of opposition groups and election monitors; and the misuse of public resources in the campaign. Three Peruvians out of four now believe the elections are not being conducted fairly.

Ironically, Fujimori would probably get elected if he ran a clean campaign, although this would not resolve the problem of his pursuing a constitutionally dubious third term.

Only one person can change this situation - the president himself.

The best contribution he could make to reviving democracy in Peru would be to withdraw from the presidential race. With the violations and abuses that have taken place to date, there is no other way to make this election appear even-handed and gain legitimacy for the results.

Few things are more destructive of democratic politics than bogus elections, and we are about to see one in Peru.

Clearly, Fujimori is unlikely to heed this advice, and there is not much that the US or other countries can do. He'll be reelected, Peru will continue under autocratic leadership, and the rebuilding of democratic institutions will be delayed for another five years. At a minimum, the US and other hemispheric governments should stop calling Peru a democracy. It is not.

* Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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