Border War Diverts Peruvian Eyes From April Contest for President

PERU was supposed to be having a presidential election campaign, but instead it's been having a war.

With little more than a month left before voting April 9, the streets of Lima would normally be festooned with campaign material, and television would be crowded with political discussions.

But this year Peru has been fighting an undeclared border war with neighboring Ecuador, so the few candidate posters take a back seat to newspaper photos and video of President Alberto Fujimori in jungle dress establishing Peru's hold on the disputed territory with mud-caked troops.

Three-inch tabloid headlines scream ``our valiant soldiers'' and Ecuador's ``aggressive'' but ``fast-retreating monkeys'' - ``monkeys'' being an increasingly popular pejorative for the Ecuadoran soldiers.

That situation may now change, after the second cease-fire in the five-week-old conflict was signed last week, and observers from four counties - the United States, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile - arrived in the conflict zone to guarantee the cease-fire is followed. But the news media remain dominated by reports of continuing skirmishes on the front. The presidential campaign has yet to move to Page 1.

``There may be a cease-fire, but the question of the war is still there,'' says Enrique Zileri, director of the Lima news weekly Caretas. ``Nothing has been settled, really.''

The conflict, centered on a 48-mile stretch of the border in mountainous jungle terrain, has been the source of periodic miniwars between the two countries, the most recent in 1981. The current cease-fire does nothing to bring the two positions closer together - especially since oil and other valuable mineral deposits have reportedly been discovered in the zone.

The question in Peru now is whether this focus on the conflict, even as it is expected to cool down, will help or damage the reelection hopes of President Fujimori. Most observers believe the war and the nationalistic fervor it has fed have been a boon to the already-popular president.

Fujimori is considered almost infallible by many Peruvians for having nearly eradicated the country's fearsome Maoist organization, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), and for taming the country's hyperinflation. He is seen by many here as adding the war as a feather in his cap.

But others say Fujimori's principal opponent, former United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, could still transform a lackluster campaign by pounding Fujimori on the many questions the conflict raises about the president's leadership. Why, as heavy material and human losses suggest, were the armed forces in such poor shape? Why was the first cease-fire signed when Ecuador still had troops in territory Peru claims? Why has Ecuador won the diplomatic and international public-relations battle?

``Perez de Cuellar is like the soccer player who stands without moving for most of a match, and suddenly fate puts the ball at his feet with a clear shot to an unprotected goal,'' says Peruvian political analyst Gustavo Gorriti. ``The question is, will he kick?''

The problem with that analogy is that in such a situation the spectators would be on the edge of their seats urging the player on. But in Peru, much of the public appears content to ignore Mr. de Cuellar (or any of Fujimori's 12 other official opponents). In a recent poll de Cuellar garnered 17 percent, Fujimori 54 percent.

``Foreigners don't seem to understand that we see Fujimori as the man who saved Peru at a time when Sendero bombs were going off every day and prices were strangling us,'' says Efrain, a Lima fruit vendor. ``Things are better, so why should we change to someone else?''

CRITICS say there are good reasons to change: They cite the president's autocratic style - exemplified by his suspension of Congress in 1992 (an act the public cheered), serious human rights violations during the height of the anti-Sendero campaign, and the government's poor jobs-creation record despite a recent spurt of economic growth.

Election observers say the only question still in any doubt is whether Fujimori will win the necessary majority April 9 to avoid a runoff. Having come out of nowhere to win in the 1990 election's second round, Fujimori is believed determined to avoid any surprises.

That ``determination'' has caused some concerns about potential election fraud - especially since about 10 percent of the country remains under military rule as part of an antiterrorism campaign.

``The part of the country under military control is going to be very important to watch,'' says Federico Velarde, technical secretary for Transparencia, an electoral watchdog group.

Important for Peru's democrats, perhaps - but of little interest to a majority still focused on defending a few square miles of jungle from neighboring Ecuador.

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