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

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

In Peru, President Alberto Fujimori won a third term Sunday in a runoff vote from which his only opponent had withdrawn.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.

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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.

Toledo, a former World Bank economist came in second behind Fujimori in the April 9 first round, in which the president fell just short of the simple majority needed to win. Toledo then announced in mid-May he would boycott Sunday's vote after domestic and international observers, including the OAS, said a fair and technically clean election was not guaranteed.

Toledo says holding Sunday's vote despite national and international criticism of the process means that "democracy in Peru is dead." He is now calling on Peruvians to continue in "peaceful resistance to the Fujimori dictatorship."

Toledo, called "El Cholo" for his strong Indian physical features, did draw more than 30,000 Peruvians to San Martn plaza on Sunday night. They chanted, "The dictatorship will fall!" in Lima's central square. Thousands more marched in provincial cities. But many Peruvians are clearly more interested in ending Fujimori's 10-year reign than in supporting Toledo, so it is unclear how far people will follow him in his "mobilization." Some political analysts say Toledo's strong support in the first-round campaign, when he stuck firmly to the issues of job creation and economic equality, fell off in the second-round campaign when Toledo shifted his emphasis to democracy and electoral fraud. Voter confusion over the campaign shift was evident.

"I voted for Toledo in the first round, but not now," says Miguel Paredes, a Lima university student. "He's shown himself to be indecisive and changeable. I'd rather continue with Fujimori who at least follows a set line."

It is also unclear how far international concern over Peru's questioned elections will go. Fujimori -no stranger to waiting out international objections to his actions -says he expects a brief period of international questioning.

More confrontational still, Fujimori's vice president elect, former foreign minister Francisco Tudela, said "extreme international NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]" were succumbing to an "inter-American hysteria" and "incorrectly condemning a process that is completely transparent and clean." He said the Peruvian government only "expects rhetorical sanctions" and is not worried. He concluded that Peru would "teach the world that we control our own destiny."

And Mr. Tudela may be right. Some analysts expect any strong push by the US and a few other OAS member states for a harsh line on Peru to be blunted by Brazil and Mexico, neither of which cares to encourage hemispheric interventionism.

Ironically, Fujimori's troubles were leading some Peruvian analysts to call Venezuela's President Hugo Chvez a "democrat" in comparison for suspending Sunday's elections there.

But Venezuelan analysts say the country's electoral tabulating apparatus was in such trouble that the government clearly had no other choice. The Chvez government "didn't act on some democratic spirit," says Alfredo Keller, a Caracas public-opinion analyst. Rather, it realized "that things were so bad that if the elections had occurred there would have been such chaos that grave violence was probable."

Chvez's chief rival for the presidency, Francisco Arias, is considered the immediate beneficiary of the electoral turmoil, although most observers consider Chvez far enough ahead to weather the storm.

And in the meantime, Toledo - Peru's self-proclaimed "savior of democracy" - says he'll take his case before hemispheric leaders in Canada next month.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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