In Peru, Voters Must Pit Stability Against Freedoms


UNDER the hot midday sun in the high Andean town of Ayacucho, weather-beaten peasants sport T-shirts with the slogan ``Say yes to the Peru you love'' written in green on a white background.

In the polling booths, for those who cannot read, green will signify ``Yes,'' sky blue ``No.''

For the third time in less than a year, Peruvians must turn out across the nation Sunday to cast their votes, but this time in a referendum, the first in the country's history. Over 11 million people are being asked to give their verdict on the proposed new constitution, drawn up by the Congress they elected last November.

``Naturally I'm voting yes,'' says Gaudencio Chipana, a farmer with a couple of acres just outside Ayacucho. ``Look what President [Alberto] Fujimori has done for us. Inflation has almost disappeared and so has terrorism. He deserves our vote.''

Statements like this have Peru's constitutional lawyers pulling their hair out. No more than one Peruvian in 10 has read the new constitution, according to pollsters, and there has been virtually no government-sponsored education campaign to ensure that the population understands what their vote on Sunday entails.

``Most voters associate the `yes' vote with a more attractive panorama for foreign investment, and therefore more jobs and development in general,'' says Giovanna Penaflor, director of Imasen, a polling organization based in Lima, the capital. ``People may not know much about the complexities of the constitution, but that doesn't prevent them having an opinion.''

Pollsters agree that Mr. Fujimori will get his majority on Sunday, though the 60 percent to 40 percent margin they are predicting will not be as wide as the government had hoped. ``The more resounding the victory, the more the outside world will perceive Peru as stable, and therefore as a good place to invest,'' says Jaime Yoshiyama, president of Congress and Fujimori's No. 2.

THE 1993 constitution, if approved, will not be very different from the 1979 version that Fujimori suspended in April 1992, at the same time he dissolved Congress. Constitutional lawyer Domingo Garcia Belaunde calculates that 60 percent of it has remained the same, 30 percent has been ``fine-tuned,'' and only 10 percent is new.

For the international community, the most controversial novelties are the articles introducing the death penalty for top guerrilla leaders convicted of ``treason'' and enabling a serving president to stand for an immediate second term. Latin American constitutions barr such measures, the latter because the president wields too much influence at election time. But in Peru, both carry broad popular support.

Other major constitutional changes affect Peru's system of governance. The new Congress, for example, will have only one chamber and 120 representatives, instead of the traditional two-chamber house with a total of 240 senators and deputies. The 12 large, semi-autonomous regions created in the final months of the Alan Garcia Perez regime are to be eliminated.

Under the new charter, the president will have the ability in the future to dissolve Congress ``in the event of grave conflict'' and will be free to appoint the ambassadors and senior military officers he chooses. It all adds up to a more centrist and authoritarian constitution.

``Everyone's a democrat when he's facing an opinion survey,'' says Alfredo Torres of the Apoyo polling organization. ``But it's obvious from their response to last year's coup that Peruvians want a strong hand in government.'' Apoyo's surveys show that since terrorist activity has declined, popular concerns increasingly center on the economy and employment opportunities.

Unlike the thorough, if not lavish, government advertising campaign, the movement for the ``No'' vote has suffered from an almost complete lack of funding (T-shirts for ``No'' do not exist). And there is no dominant figure to pull the ``no'' groups together. Nevertheless, the campaign has touched a chord among a few Peruvians.

In Ayacucho, as in most provincial towns and the shantytowns that surround Peru's large cities, the most committed campaigners for the ``no'' vote are teachers, health-care workers, and representatives of struggling grass-roots civic and neighborhood organizations.

``This constitution represents yet another cut-back in our fundamental rights,'' says Alberto Ochoa, leader of Ayacucho's Civic Committee for the ``No'' Vote. ``The state is abdicating its most basic function, which is to promote development.'' Mr. Ochoa is skeptical that foreign investors will bring their money to Ayacucho. The prospect of more state employees losing their jobs and the ``privatization of education'' will lead many to vote ``no'' on Sunday, he says.

According to Lima's pollsters - who concede they can only take proper samples from around 45 percent of Peru's vast, rugged territory - the ``No'' vote was gathering strength in the last few days before polling.

``If this makeshift `No' campaign gets 40 percent or more of the valid votes, it will be seen as a triumph even though the constitution will be approved,'' Mr. Torres says. ``It could mean a strengthening of the new opposition to Mr. Fujimori - and in the end, that's good for democracy in Peru.''

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