ATLANTA — Peruvians went to the polls last Sunday in what should have been an opportunity to exercise their democratic rights. Instead the elections will be remembered as the day Peru's democracy died. How is it that President Alberto Fujimori won a third five-year term, yet did so with a victory that the State Department has at least initially characterized as illegitimate?
He conducted such a dirty campaign and corrupted the process so completely that national and international observers refused to even observe the elections. Television stations were coerced into silence or into being slavishly pro-government. The tabloid press was used to assassinate the character of opposition politicians and any journalist courageous enough to do investigative reporting. The organizations charged with ensuring the integrity of the voting process instead ensured the incumbent won. The armed forces and intelligence services were used as secret police who saw the country's enemies as anyone opposed to Fujimori's second reelection.
All this was possible for two reasons. First, Fujimori is obsessed with staying in office and arrogant enough to think only he can run the country. Because - as in most of Latin America - power is concentrated in the executive branch, he can do so. But a president with such excessive control invariably turns out to be corrupt, incompetent, or dictatorial. Without any institutions that provide a check or balance on his power, Fujimori has again demonstrated the inevitability of absolute power corrupting absolutely.
Second, he could do so because he is not without accomplices. Most Peruvians are poor and, for them, making ends meet is a daily struggle. Many of them are therefore more interested in the hope of employment than the quality of their democracy. There are other Peruvians who are not poor, but are even less interested in real democracy. They prefer a society where the important economic and political decisions are made based on who you know. These well-polished and well-connected apologists will now be making eloquent arguments for an indefensible regime. Fujimori's vice president, for instance, resigned as foreign minister in 1997 rather than defend what the government was doing to freedom of the press. At some point, ambition overtook principle - however, and he became Fujimori's running mate. Now he responds with boundless indignation to those who criticize the mockery his government has made of the democratic process. He will likely argue that Fujimori got 75 percent of the valid votes cast. He will ignore the fact that the challenger, Alejandro Toledo, dropped out of the election and urged people to not vote or spoil their ballots. Taking that into consideration, Fujimori emerged with the support of less than 42 percent of the voters.
In 1992, Fujimori closed down the courts and the congress and ruled for a time by decree. There was international outrage, but 85 percent of Peruvians, having no respect for either institution, supported his moves.
Fujimori no doubt thinks he can serenely weather the storm of foreign criticism and can control any domestic unrest with the help of the military. There is today even less respect among Peruvians for their judiciary and legislature than in 1992. Together with what is widely perceived, even within Peru, as an illegitimate electoral victory, this will provide a built-in argument for anyone who pushes for a coup or an act of terrorism in the future.
Fujimori's unflappable composure was also on display three years ago as he methodically planned the assault that ended the hostage taking at the Japanese ambassador's residence. His preparations for the election that ultimately ended Peru's democracy were just as thorough and years in the making. None of the terrorists walked out of the ambassador's residence, but Peru's democracy will eventually be reborn. Just as surely as power corrupts, dictators, even elected ones, eventually wear out their welcome. In the meantime, Peru will have a dark road to travel.
*Dennis Jett served as US ambassador to Peru from 1996 to 1999 and is an adviser at The Carter Center. He is author of 'Why Peacekeeping Fails' (St. Martin's Press).
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society