Race for President Heats Up in Peru With Fujimori Ahead

OSCAR FLORES works eight hours each night as a security guard in a Lima apartment block. For most of each day, he helps out at a welding shop in the impoverished San Juan de Miraflores.

The two jobs give him around $45 a week, barely enough to care for his wife and two girls.

''We eat worse than we did five years ago, it's true,'' he says. ''But I think Peru is heading in the right direction. I'm going to vote for [President Fujimori] again.''

Judging by three opinion polls published in early December, Mr. Flores's reasoning is typical of many Peruvians. All the surveys indicate that support for incumbent Alberto Fujimori is growing, and if elections were held today, he would crush his opponents.

His closest rival -- Javier Perez de Cuellar -- is in the dust. The former United Nations secretary-general comes in between 19 and 27 percent, according to Peru's often-unreliable polls.

In third place, is international economist Alejandro Toledo. Peru's national electoral board ruled President Fujimori's own wife, Susana Higuchi, out of the running when she failed to present a sufficient number of signatures. She announced Dec. 1 that she was running for Congress.

With almost four months left before the April 9 election, plenty could sway the notoriously volatile electorate. Polls in 1990 showed Fujimori with only 3 percent of the vote weeks before the election. But he won 24 percent in the first round and massively defeated celebrated writer Mario Vargas Llosa in a second round.

''But there are very sound reasons for believing that Fujimori will maintain a strong lead,'' says a senior Western diplomat in Lima. ''Just look at the macroeconomic indicators.''

Even if the average Peruvian does not yet feel richer, the figures are impressive. The economy grew almost 13 percent in the first three quarters with every sector showing improvement.

Underpinning the economic progress is the government's success against guerrilla groups, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), which terrorized the country from 1980 to 1992.

Since the capture of MRTA's leader in June 1992 and the arrest of Shining Path's founder-leader two months later, most of the movements' top heads have been captured.

Cashing in on that, Fujimori is projecting himself as the savior of Peru who should be allowed another five years to finish the job.

''Peace is indispensable for democracy,'' he told a meeting of Peru's most important businessmen last month, ''and only now that it's a reality can we talk of development and job creation.''

So far, since constitutions prior to Fujimori's 1993 version have not permitted presidents to be elected in succession, no incumbent restrictions on campaigning or spending exist.

The incumbent president enjoys the advantage of being a ''candidate president'' who can open schools or inaugurate recently completed stretches of highway built with funds from international organizations or the Peruvian taxpayer.

But Fujimori's opponents labor under other disadvantages, some of their own making. Both Mr. de Cuellar and Mr. Toledo are intellectuals who have spent many years outside Peru. They are attacked for not experiencing the hyperinflation, recession, and terrorism of Peru's recent past. ''And now that the table is laid, they want to come and eat dinner,'' Fujimori publicly scoffs.

Pro-government media have run a smear campaign against Mr. Toledo, who made an immediate impact on voters and rose rapidly in the polls. He has been accused of falsifying his professional qualifications and is linked to an informal banking scandal.

De Cuellar's international prestige has largely saved him from similar attacks.

''But [Fujimori's] current high levels of support could backfire,'' warns Manual Torrado of the Datum polling agency whose recent survey showed 56 percent support for Fujimori. ''If Peruvians see him too far ahead, they may just decide to vote for someone else.''

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