Peru prepares for a tough choice
A problem solver, yes, but a democrat?
He's revered by many for smashing the Shining Path leftist rebels, toppling hyperinflation, and bringing lights, water, and schools to the poor. But his authoritarian style is reminiscent of South America's past caudillos who left no space for democratic institutions to flourish.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, in the final week of his quest for a controversial third five-year term, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori finds his bid increasingly questioned. Critics here and abroad say the lopsided campaign full of "dirty tricks" risks delivering a fraudulent election this Sunday.
The Organization of American States said on Friday that the government's failure to address free-election doubts could cause it to "disqualify" the results. The Carter Center in Atlanta found the campaign "irreparably damaged" in its final observation report earlier this month. The US Senate is considering a cut in economic aid if observers find the election failed basic international democratic standards.
Meanwhile, Peruvian political analysts say a campaign using a subtly but heavily controlled press and state resources exemplifies a leader more interested in holding on to power than in promoting democratic principles.
But Mr. Fujimori, who in a decade at Peru's helm has earned a reputation for getting things done - good and bad - with little regard for anyone's checks and balances, seems to be loving every minute of the scuffle.
"They tell us Peru is no democracy, but in Peru we know that democracy is more than a carnival of promises and privileges for the few," he shouts from atop his "Fujimobile" - a kind of modified milk truck with railings on top to accommodate musicians and a microphone-wielding president.
"Democracy doesn't mean sticking a vote in a box," continues this pedagogical president. "It's about rights - the right to a good education, the right to health, and the fundamental Peruvian right to live free from terrorism!"
When Fujimori engineered a new interpretation of the Constitution to allow himself a third consecutive term - a move many experts here still consider illegal - it was not the first time he raised eyebrows. The take-no-prisoners president squashed the fearsome El Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla group in part thanks to regional emergency declarations giving his government expanded powers. And he closed down Congress in 1992 to tidy up his path of action.
Despite a decade of democratization throughout Latin America, some observers worry that Fujimori's example could find admirers elsewhere in the region. Others insist it already has, and point to Venezuela's failed coup-leader-turned-president, Hugo Chvez.
"If Fujimori wins again, it's a negative example of how someone remains in power by violating democratic rules," says Lima political analyst Santiago Pedraglio. "I think the United States understands this [risk]."
The US is not eager for a row with Peru. Under Fujimori, the country has followed the market-oriented economic reforms the US recommends, resolved old border disputes with Ecuador and Chile, and has cooperated in reducing illicit narcotics cultivation. But the US also has a broader interest in supporting its view that authoritarian governments put the region's long-term stability at risk, US officials say.
Yet as Fujimori prowls Lima's slums, drawing out enthusiastic crowds like an ice-cream truck on a summer's day with his short, off-the-cuff speeches and Peruvian cumbia music, most of the response is positive.
On the dusty streets of San Juan de Lurigancho, a collection of the kind of marginalized urban settlements that are a Fujimori stronghold, the president basks in the cheers and laughter of groups of mostly women, children, and unemployed young men. In response to the presidential tutorial in democracy, the crowd roars, "Chino yes, others no!" using the endearment, "the Chinaman" for their president of Japanese descent.
"He brought us stability, he helps the poor, and we risk losing that with anyone else," says Antonio Lerma, a shirtless young man in worn soccer shorts who works in construction when he can find a job. "He's the only president who has worked for the people, putting a roof over our heads, providing milk for the children, building schools, while the others only lined their pockets," says Sonia Camacho, who sells homemade foods in Lima. "There's no one else we can trust."
Yet even in the slums that heavily favor him, dissident voices surface, suggesting why Sunday's vote - where Fujimori's strongest challenger is economist and business-school administrator Alejandro Toledo - could be close enough to force a runoff.