Peru's next step

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Peru is in the midst of yet another political crisis. After his reelection six months ago, Alberto Fujimori's presidency went into a nose dive. He went abroad earlier this month and faxed his resignation back. His whole party has sunk to the point where, until elections next year, the interim president will be an opposition congressman.

A new, elected president won't end Peru's endemic political instability, however, for the very reasons that brought the nation to this point. Peru's democracy still can't ensure an honest government any more than it did with President Fujimori.

After ruling for a decade, he rammed a third five-year term for himself down his countrymen's throats in rigged elections last May. He was able to do that because he had successfully undermined Peru's already weak democratic institutions. That weakness is the fundamental problem with democracy in Peru and much of Latin America. Because of it, presidential power rarely has any effective checks or balances.

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The legislatures are "debating societies," filled with politicians who are mainly interested in peddling their influence. The judicial systems serve only those who can afford to buy justice. Such institutions practice their own brand of corruption and do nothing to inhibit it in the executive branch.

This institutional weakness did not start with Mr. Fujimori. His immediate predecessor, Alan Garcia, was famously corrupt and remarkably inept. In spite of this, Mr. Garcia served out his term and then exiled himself to Paris, where he has been enjoying his riches ever since.

This time, however, a videotape aired on local television of a congressman being bribed by Fujimori's right-hand hatchet man, Vladimiro Montesinos, started the process that brought Fujimori down.

Fujimori's fall was hastened earlier this month when the opposition took over the presidency of the congress and new revelations showed Mr. Montesinos had amassed at least $58 million in overseas bank accounts. People found it hard to believe that Montesinos did not share some of his ill-gotten gains with Fujimori, and the loss of control of Congress opened up the possibility of investigations that Fujimori would not want to come home for.

So Fujimori called it quits from Japan, where it appears he will remain indefinitely. Since his parents were born in Japan, he could stay there as a citizen and avoid having to shop around for political asylum.

Just two months ago, Fujimori announced he was calling for new elections and stepping down next July instead of in 2005. Now Valentin Paniagua, the opposition congressman who was recently named head of the legislature, has become interim president. He will guide the country through new elections set for next April 8 and a transfer of power on July 28. If that happens as scheduled, it could spell an end to the political turmoil, but only for a time.

Popular frustration with the chronically incapable institutions in Latin America often results in all the power being placed in the hands of people like Fujimori, until they prove themselves equally incapable and corrupt. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez is well on his way to becoming an absolute ruler even though he lacks Fujimori's intelligence, subtlety, and patience. President Chavez will demonstrate that his feet are as much made of clay as Fujimori's, only sooner. High oil prices will delay the implosion for a time, but not for long.

That is a certainty. Lord Acton's truism is a cliche precisely because it is true: Power does corrupt, and the greater the degree of power, the more rapid the onset of corruption and the demonstration of incompetence.

Even if a president starts off honest, as Fujimori did, those around him will succumb and may take the whole regime down with them, as Montesinos did.

How can Peru's next president prevent a repeat of this sorry history? He (or she) will have to limit his power in order to preserve it. He should work to strengthen the judiciary, the parliament, and press freedom to ensure that he can provide oversight of the executive branch to keep corruption in check.

He will have to end the military's ability to hide its corruption by wrapping itself in the flag and claiming national security requires total secrecy about arms purchases. He will have to ensure that all the senior officials of his administration publicly declare their assets and annually report their income.

If steps like these are not taken, corruption inevitably will set in, and the next political crisis will be just a question of time.

Dennis Jett, who served as US ambassador to Peru from 1996 to 1999, is dean of the International Center at the University of Florida and author of 'Why Peacekeeping Fails' (St. Martin's Press).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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