In the midst of a major bribery scandal, the man who ruled Peru with an iron fist for the past decade, stunned the nation by saying he will step down.
Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori said Saturday night there will be new elections - and he will not run. But it's not clear when the elections will be held or when he will leave office. Thousands of Peruvians immediately took to the streets, celebrating the news.
Mr. Fujimori is a master of the dramatic stroke and credited with paving the way for a new brand of democratic authoritarianism. In 1992, he staged a "self coup," dissolving Peru's legislature for opposing his reforms and later holding new elections. It's a tactic that other democratically elected leaders, mostly recently, Venezuela's Hugo Chvez, have employed to consolidate their power.
The announcement came two days after the release of a shocking videotape showing the chief of the National Intelligence Service, Vladimiro Montesinos, nick-named "Peru's Rasputin," bribing an opposition congressman. .
"After much reflection, I have taken the decision, first, to deactivate the [NIS], and second, to convoke, in the shortest term possible, new general elections," Fujimori said in the taped statement shown on Peruvian television.
Since the release of the bribery video Thursday night by an opposition group, Fujimori has faced a storm of calls to fire Mr. Montesinos - considered by many the real power behind the regime.
But the videotape proved to be the final blow to Fujimori's already shaky regime, which has been severely questioned since winning April elections that the Organization of American States (OAS) and other international observers deemed neither free nor fair. When a May run-off was scheduled, opposition candidate Alejandro Toledo withdrew, protesting against alleged fraud. Fujimori won unopposed.
"Now it's fallen! The dictatorship has fallen!" sang demonstrators as they waved Peruvian flags and danced to an impromptu drum circle in Lima's Plaza de Armas Saturday night following Fujimori's announcement.
But some observers think the president is up to something. Carlos Reyna, an analyst at Lima's DESCO think tank, told Reuters he is suspicious because the announcement wasn't "made by a democratic government, but by a totalitarian who always defends himself and his power by the skin of his teeth."
Experts estimate an adequately democratic vote could be anywhere from three months to a year away. Meanwhile, it is unclear whether Fujimori will turn over his rule to Vice-President Francisco Tudela or to another politician.
The fraud video, released by an opposition party, The Independent Moralizing Front (FIM), shows NIS head Montesinos together with Congressman Alberto Kouri, the vice-president of a Peruvian television station, and the head of an advertising agency at the NIS headquarters on May 5. Montesinos is seen giving an envelope filled with money to Mr. Kouri, who in July abandoned Mr. Toledo's group Peru Posible to form part of Fujimori's political alliance Peru 2000.
Kouri is one of 12 congress members originally elected as opposition candidates, but who later defected, either directly to Fujimori's party. In a process dubbed "the second fraud," Fujimori's Peru 2000 increased its representatives from 52 members to 65, a majority in the 120-seat Congress. The FIM claims it has a number of other videos proving fraud on behalf of Fujimori's regime.
At one point on the tape, Montesinos is heard to say, "We already have a majority, but I don't want a simple majority. I want a majority of 70, 75 [seats]."
Though he holds no official government post, Montesinos is the de facto director of the NIS and is viewed by detractors as a shadowy figure linked to death squads, drug trafficking, and numerous corruption scandals. He is also suspected of having spied for the CIA.
Human rights groups say Montesinos engineered an elaborate web of political alliances using bribery, blackmail, intimidation, and even assassinations.
FIM leader Fernando Olivera, who made the video public, said his group had received the tape from "patriots" within the intelligence service. Analysts say the armed forces might be behind leaking the tape.
The video was made public within the context of faltering negotiations overseen by a permanent OAS mission. Headed by Eduardo la Torre of the Dominican Republic, the mission arrived in August to facilitate and monitor talks between the government and opposition factions. The opposition has repeatedly called for Montesinos's ouster as crucial to the success of democratic reforms.
But Fujimori had refused to budge, and was recently trying to clean up Montesinos' image by presenting the adviser as the brains behind detecting a Peruvian arms-smuggling ring supplying weapons to Colombian guerrillas.
Opposition groups pulled out of the OAS dialogue after the video was released. Following the Saturday night address, opposition leaders commended Fujimori's decision to stand down and allow for new elections. They cautioned, however, that several conditions must be met for the elections to have significance, including the replacement of tainted electoral officials.
Opposition leaders said a full investigation into government corruption is required, as is the arrest and trial of Montesinos and Kouri. At press time, Mon- tesinos's whereabouts were unknown.
Analysts also warn that removing Montesinos from power does not automatically pave the way for democracy. "There must be an evaluation of how and why Montesinos leaves - whether he is removed or whether he orchestrates the terms of his own exit," says Fernando Tuesta, a Lima-based political scientist.
But many remain overjoyed and optimistic. Mr. Olivera, who released the video, told Reuters: "Finally, I think God is Peruvian!"
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society