Latin America's democratic gambles

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For many years, Mexico and Peru have been governed by old-style authoritarian regimes masquerading as formal democracies. In Peru, President Alberto Fujimori temporarily shut down the Congress in 1992, stitched together a new Constitution that allowed him to run for reelection in 1995, and then fired the judges who ruled that he could not run for a third term in 2000. Meanwhile, Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has retained uninterrupted control over the presidency for more than seven decades - sometimes employing outright electoral fraud in order to remain in power.

These conditions could change - and change dramatically - in the coming weeks, as both Fujimori and the PRI currently are facing stiff electoral challenges. In Peru, where a first round of voting last April was marred by credible allegations of vote tampering committed by Fujimori's supporters, mass pro-democracy protests throughout the country helped force a runoff election between the president and upstart challenger Alejandro Toledo, currently scheduled for May 28. (Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding potential fraud is threatening to derail this second round of voting.) Meanwhile, recent polls in Mexico show PRI candidate Francisco Labastida trailing his opposition rival Vicente Fox by a few percentage points as the nation's July 2 presidential contest approaches.

These developments make it possible - though not necessarily probable - that both Fujimori and the PRI could be out of office within a span of weeks, providing an immediate and significant boost to the consolidation of democracy in Peru and Mexico. Paradoxically, however, the unwieldy opposition coalitions needed to bring about these results may actually undermine democracy in the long run.

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In both countries, a formerly splintered opposition has coalesced around a common enemy. Virtually the entire Peruvian opposition - from conservative Christian Democrats to disgruntled ex-socialists - has rallied around Toledo, motivated more by their extreme distaste for Fujimori than support for his opponent. And Mexico is seeing equally unlikely bedfellows, with long-time leftist intellectuals, conservative Catholic leaders, and even disaffected former PRI supporters rallying behind Fox - a member of the right-leaning National Action Party. Their sole objective? Remove the PRI from office.

Such transient alliances are probably the only way to unseat longtime incumbents. Unfortunately, they do not necessarily bode well for the governments to follow. If nothing unites the opposition save its disdain for the powers-that-be, what would happen once - and if - those powers are defeated? Would these highly eclectic opposition coalitions stand together and govern effectively? Or once the common enemy is vanquished, would they revert to defending their sectarian interests, resulting in divided and ineffectual administrations?

Latin American nations have faced such dilemmas before. In Chile, the coalition that reached power in 1990 after 17 years of military rule was able to govern effectively, combining sound social policies with continued economic growth. In Peru, by contrast, the governments that reached power after the country's democratic transition in 1980 were mired in executive-legislative wrangling and partisan bickering; their very ineptitude led to the ascent of the heavy-handed Fujimori in 1990.

The coming presidential elections therefore present an immense opportunity as well as a sizable risk. Opposition victories would affirm democratic practices, but the euphoria of ousting Fujimori and the PRI might be followed by the sobering reality of broken coalitions and hapless governments, making voters yearn for the bygone days of strong-armed stability. Authoritarian governments could reemerge, vindicated and revitalized.

Ultimately, citizens in Mexico and Peru can - and should - vote for change. But they should do so recognizing that democratic politics and effective governance do not necessarily go together. The toughest challenges for Fox and Toledo would not end, but only begin, with a victory at the polls.

*Carlos Lozada is an associate editor of Foreign Policy magazine in Washington, D.C.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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