Peru Gears Up for Soap-Opera Campaign

Former UN chief Javier Perez de Cuellar and the nation's first lady are giving President Fujimori some trouble on the road to reelection

ALL is not proceeding according to plan for President Alberto Fujimori's April 1995 reelection.

With his wife and one of the most respected men in Peru - former United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar - as potential rivals, victory for President Fujimori, who pulled off a stunning, come-from-behind win in 1990, will not as easy as it once appeared.

With just over two weeks left before presidential hopefuls must register their candidacies, the field is wide open. Even Fujimori has still not confirmed he will stand for reelection, now permitted under the new Constitution promulgated last year.

``At this moment, it's quite impossible to predict the final outcome,'' says Alfredo Torres of Apoyo, a Lima-based market-research company. With more candidates and movements emerging daily, last weekend's Apoyo poll showed Fujimori as the voters' first choice; 44 percent of respondents said they would vote for him if he ran. Mr. Perez de Cuellar was only chosen by 24 percent of those polled.

Though most Peruvians believe the former career diplomat would restore their country's international image, tarnished since April 1992 when Fujimori dissolved Congress and effectively seized one-man rule, Perez de Cuellar has a lot of catching up to do if he announces his candidacy as he is expected to do today.

Perez de Cuellar's chief drawback - one exploited by Fujimori on his almost-daily flights to Peru's rugged interior - is that he has spent much of his life outside Peru. ``Anyone who aspires to the presidency should know his country,'' repeats Fujimori as he opens new schools, inaugurates freshly resurfaced stretches of roads, and hands out imported Chinese tractors to Andean peasant farming communities.

``President Fujimori doesn't need to teach me anything about Peru,'' Perez de Cuellar firmly retorts. ``He's served this country just four years. I for 40.''

Fujimori's challenge from his wife of 20 years is more controversial. Susana Higuchi, a civil engineer who established and ran a successful construction company here, is centering her still-fledgling campaign on denouncing corruption within her husband's government.

``When I see so much corruption, so many broken promises, I feel the moral obligation to confront the closed circles of political power,'' she said as she launched her new political movement, Harmony 21st Century. ``I will fulfill the commitments my husband assumed, but with the transparency Peru deserves.''

Early polls show Ms. Higuchi with only 6 to 7 percent of voter sympathy. But that is enough to put her in third place. Her movement, backed by several influential women's groups, says it is swamped with offers of support.

Analysts say it is unlikely Higuchi will be elected to anything other than a seat in Congress. And there is a legal obstacle to her candidacy, which she is challenging. A recent law passed by her husband and the majority in Congress prohibits her, and other relatives, from running for office.

But she could be a spoiler. Her public attacks on her husband's government commenced in early August, when she moved out of the government palace. She then accused Fujimori of authoritarianism and blindness to the sufferings of Peru's poor.

``All the works of this government have been in the area of infrastructure,'' she complained. ``It's like the head of a family promising his children a fine new mansion but depriving them of food for six months while it's being built.''

Fujimori's popularity remains at a high level with most Peruvians equating stability with his reelection.

But Higuchi's recent allegations of high-level corruption, if substantiated, could prove more damaging. Fujimori's stunning 1990 campaign - when he came from nowhere to trounce all established political parties and celebrated novelist Mario Vargas Llosa - was rooted in pledges of ``moralization.''

Fujimori's achievements in four years of government should not be minimized. He has curbed hyperinflation, reestablished relations with the international financial community, liberalized the economy, and brought foreign investment back to Peru. Perhaps most importantly, he has crushed the twin guerrilla movements which, two years ago, threatened to make the country ungovernable.

Opinion polls now show Peruvians relatively unconcerned about inflation and terrorism. Complaints such as unemployment, low wages, and inadequate health and education services, have replaced the more dramatic worries.

``But we cannot forget Fujimori's achievements have been at the expense of democracy and due process,'' comments a senior Western diplomat. ``The justice system is only imperceptibly better than four years ago; drug trafficking is almost certainly worse. As for levels of corruption, who knows? No one is accountable and no one investigates.''

Though Fujimori's presidency is often criticized, the established political parties have been unable to capitalize on his shortcomings. Their standings remain at rock bottom: more than 4 out of 5 voters now declare they have no party allegiance.

These parties are doing their best to spruce up their image by consulting their grass roots, pulling in newer and younger members, pushing women to the fore, and taking on a more modern and democratic air. But Peruvians' preference for the independent candidate remains strong.

A rash of alternative ``movements'' and ``fronts,'' like Higuchi's are appearing. Most will present themselves as the democratic response to a president who is a self-confessed authoritarian and who leans heavily on the armed forces, often substituting them for civilian support.

One such movement, called ``Peru Possible,'' was launched last week by Alejandro Toledo, a respected economist with wide international experience. Mr. Toledo recognizes the successes of Fujimori and says continuity and stability are essential. ``We must not undo what's been achieved so far. But that does not mean the same people must continue.''

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