Peru opposition at a loss, sans Fuji

Valentin Paniagua became president on Nov. 22. More than a dozen candidates may oppose him in April.

When the cat is gone, the mice will ... bicker?

That unmelodious rewrite of a favorite adage fits Peru a month after the surprise departure and resignation of former President Alberto Fujimori.

In the campaign that gave Mr. Fujimori his ill-fated third term earlier this year and then throughout the unraveling of his regime, the authoritarian president gave Peru's political opposition a cause to rally against.

But now that the man and the regime are gone, the opposition -made up of some weak political parties, "democratic independents," and new organizations formed to support particular presidential candidates -is crumbling. The forces that until recently demonstrated "pro-democracy unity" are dividing over visions for the country's transition, with new presidential and congressional elections set for April 8.

After assuming his controversial third five-year term on July 28, Fujimori responded to a deepening political scandal by calling in September for new elections. That decision followed the airing of a videotape showing Fujimori's intelligence chief and close aide Vladimiro Montesinos offering an opposition member of Congress a sum of money to switch camps and give Fujimori a congressional majority. As scandals deepened and Mr. Montesinos went into hiding, Fujimori announced from a stay in Japan that he would resign immediately and remain overseas indefinitely.

That differences should begin surfacing within the opposition and during a period of political recomposition is normal, some observers say. But others worry that the divisions risk opening the door to a charismatic political unknown -akin to Fujimori himself, who came from nowhere to win Peru's presidency in 1990. Others say the prospects of a divided presidential race with perhaps more than a dozen candidates could bewilder the public and yield a weak president at a crucial time for Peru's transition.

Indications of that public impact surface repeatedly on the street. Says Edgar Ortega, a Lima software salesman of the presidential race: "Right now there isn't anybody to get excited about. People are waiting to see who might come along."

Peru's transitional president, Valentin Paniagua, elected from within the opposition Congress, won high points from Peruvians and foreign observers for acting swiftly in the caretaker presidency that will end in July 2001. Mr. Paniagua removed more than a dozen military officers who were part of a nexus of military power aligned with Montesinos - in some cases replacing them with officers who'd recently been "retired" by Fujimori. But some observers say Paniagua didn't go far enough.

Paniagua says his chief goals will be creating the conditions to guarantee reliable and transparent elections in April, and steps to begin moving the economy out of a deep recession.

In recent days the already basement-locked economy has been hit by bank and insurance-company closings. But some economists take these events as a positive sign that the Paniagua government is allowing weaknesses to be honestly exposed and addressed, rather than hidden as under a scandal-tagged Fujimori.

A sure disappointment for Paniagua has been his government's inability to locate Montesinos. Sought on corruption charges related to the $75 million he's believed to have amassed in foreign accounts, the former spy chief was last sighted in Costa Rica and is believed to be headed to Aruba.

"Unfortunately Montesinos's network is still working in Peru," Prime Minister Javier Perez de Cuellar told the Lima daily El Comercio last week.

But such warnings aren't stopping the cracks in the "democratic opposition" from appearing -cracks that can only be expected to widen as the April elections draw closer.

Fujimori's chief rival in the 2000 elections, Alejandro Toledo, had hoped much of the opposition would rally around him. Many Peruvians believe Mr. Toledo actually won against Fujimori in the first round of voting last April. But charging widespread fraud, Toledo boycotted the second round, where Fujimori won, a move many analysts now consider a mistake.

Toledo is "a victim of his own success," says Lima political analyst Fernando Rospigliosi. Toledo can take partial credit for Fujimori's undoing, since his post-election marches kept the heat on. But as some of those demonstrations turned violent, Toledo became associated with violence -a kiss of death in a country still reeling from its 1980s war with the Shining Path group.

"I wouldn't see [Toledo] as the next president of Peru," says David Scott Palmer, a Peru specialist at Boston University.

Toledo continues to make noises about a consensus opposition candidate, but such veiled calls for support are being widely ignored by other presidential hopefuls. One example is former people's defender Jorge Santistevan. Justifying his announced candidacy, Mr. Santistevan says Peru needed a united opposition under the Fujimori regime, but should now use a strengthened democracy and fairer elections to develop new leadership options.

"People are going to see my candidacy as the most reliable, because they know my work, and they know I get things done," says Santistevan. His five years' work as the country's chief human rights defender -attacking forced military recruitment, investigating forced sterilizations, and mistaken imprisonments during Peru's antiterrorism war -has given him valuable recognition.

Another question mark hovers over the intentions of former President Alan Garcia Perez, who fled Peru under a cloud of corruption charges when Fujimori was elected. Speculation is building that Mr. Garcia, who says he intends to return to Peru soon, could stir the pot by deciding to seek reelection.

Mr. Rospigliosi worries about such unknown candidates waiting in the wings. "With everything that has happened the public is feeling immense disgust and lack of confidence, and that's very dangerous," Rospigliosi says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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