PERU'S journey toward full democracy took a surprising turn over the weekend when President Alberto Fujimori announced that he will step down and call new elections.
The best time for that announcement would have been after this summer's elections, which were seen as flawed and probably fraudulent by both Mr. Fujimori's opponents and international observers. The criticisms were weighty enough to throw doubt on the legitimacy of a third term for the controversial president.
But Fujimori gave no hint of compromise then. What has changed his mind now is a corruption scandal that can't be defied or ignored. One of the president's closest aides, intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos, was caught on film bribing an opposition member of Congress, who later changed loyalties and backed Fujimori.
Some observers wonder about the sincerity of this withdrawal by a political figure who has often shown a determination to remain in power. It's conceivable Fujimori might have ulterior motives, or that the military might try to fill a power void.
Just as likely, this could be a sound, pragmatic decision by a man who has done much to help stabilize his country, putting down terrorist insurgencies and launching needed economic reform.
The real test for Fujimori will be whether he now takes steps toward true democratic stability. He must work with all political players in Peru to strengthen the electoral system and rebuild key institutions, like an independent judiciary. Equally important, units that have fostered corruption and worked against democracy, such as the current intelligence service, should be dissolved, as Fujimori also promised.
At this writing, no date had been set for new elections, but a half year or more might be required to lay a good groundwork. Peru's friends, at home and abroad, will be watching.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society