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Electoral strife dogs S. America

Fujimori wins Peru's controversial runoff for president; Venezuela suspends its vote.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 30, 2000


An air of political uncertainty hangs over South America after much-watched electoral processes in Peru and Venezuela took divergent but equally unsettling turns.

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In Peru, President Alberto Fujimori won a third term Sunday in a runoff vote from which his only opponent had withdrawn. Moreover, independent national and international election observers condemned the vote as failing fairness and transparency standards.

And in Venezuela, a giant plebiscite that on Sunday was to have elected more than 6,000 public officials, from president to local councillors, was abruptly cancelled Thursday by the country's Supreme Judicial Tribunal. The court said technical conditions were inadequate and that voters didn't have enough information about the complex vote to guarantee transparency and confidence in the results.

One of the advantages of national elections can be to define a country's direction and promote stability. But in these two countries - one where a heavily contested vote went ahead, and the other where a new voting date has yet to be set - soured electoral processes have fed confusion and uncertainty.

"Everybody was so confused about what to do. I don't think that confusion is going to disappear tomorrow just because the election is over," said Oscar Morales, a Lima grocery clerk after voting Sunday. "There is a feeling of, 'What happens now?' "

In Peru's case, the troubled election process will be reviewed tomorrow at a Washington meeting of the Organization of American States. The chief of the OAS's electoral observation mission to Peru, Eduardo Stein, will report on the mission's decision last Thursday not to observe Sunday's vote.

The Peruvian crisis could then be taken to the OAS foreign ministers meeting set for June 4 in Windsor, Ontario. Peruvian electoral officials reported with partial returns early yesterday that Fujimori was winning just over 50 percent of votes cast -the next largest category being "voided" ballots.

As part of his boycott of the election, Fujimori's opponent Alejandro Toledo had asked his supporters either not to vote or to write "no to fraud" on their ballot. Yet even before the ballots in Sunday's vote were counted, Peru was already experiencing turbulence in its bilateral relations with a number of international partners, including the United States, the European Union, and a number of Latin American neighbors.

President Clinton said Friday that US relations with Peru "will inevitably be affected" because of a lack of "free, fair, and transparent elections." On Sunday, unofficial sources said the US ambassador to Peru, John Hamilton, was likely to be called to Washington for consultations.

In a communiqu Thursday, the OAS mission said the Peruvian process was "far from what could be considered free and just." Despite noting improvements over preceding days in the electoral computer system, the mission said predominating "deficiencies" and "inequalities" led it to "consider the overall electoral process as irregular."

The OAS mission had recommended the vote be put off for 10 days to boost voters' confidence. They said the delay would also have allowed Mr. Fujimori's opponent in the runoff, Mr. Toledo, to return to the race. But in a split vote, the country's National Electoral Board decided to maintain the May 28 runoff.