Ending Peru's masquerade

Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's recent decision to call for new elections and not participate has caused surprise and confusion over how the country will be governed in the months ahead. This situation, and the response of the key institutions, show why democracy in Peru today is largely a masquerade. A democracy worthy of the name will be a long time coming to Peru.

Mr. Fujimori's grip on power began to give way this month when a cable news station aired a videotape showing the head of the national intelligence service, Vladimiro Montesinos, bribing an opposition congressman. When Fujimori two days later announced the new elections in a televised address, he also declared he was dismantling the intelligence service.

Since the president's speech, however, it has been unclear when the elections will be, when he will step down, and what, if anything, will happen to his intelligence adviser.

Mr. Montesinos is nominally not even a government official, but instead carries the title intelligence adviser. Yet the only debate in Peru was whether he was the most powerful man in the country, or whether Fujimori was in charge and Montesinos was just a close second.

Montesinos's mysterious aura and low profile enhanced the perception of his power. He almost never appeared in public. When he was seen, it was news. On one occasion I took Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug czar, to see Fujimori. Montesinos was at the far end of the table. Fujimori spoke at length, and never felt the need to call on his aides to comment. Yet because Montesinos allowed himself to be photographed leaving the meeting, the headline in all the Lima papers the next day was "McCaffrey meets with Montesinos."

Montesinos was powerful because he had Fujimori's ear and could get things done. Despite the political cost to Fujimori of keeping such a controversial figure by his side, Montesinos was hardworking, loyal, and effective. Whether it was controlling the judiciary, intimidating the media, or keeping tabs on the military, Fujimori could depend on him.

It also helped that those institutions that could have reined him in - the judiciary, the legislature, and the press - were unwilling or unable to do so. Investigations of wrongdoing, when they were started, never went anywhere because the justice system and the parliament were easily coopted. Those officials who were not bought were fired.

Some are not even slightly interested in playing their roles. The legislature's capacity for sticking its head in the sand would be the envy of an ostrich. The head of the congressional committee for defense reacted to the video by stating her concern that opposition politicians might have more tapes. Her only concern was the lack of protection of "classified information."

The press has also been unable to check Montesinos's power, but not for lack of trying. Fujimori is named on the Committee to Protect Journalists' list of the 10 world leaders who are the biggest threats to press freedom.

Instead of supporting democracy, the courts, the intelligence services, and the Congress are willing to be used to attack any efforts for true reform - as are many journalists. In that environment, it is a minor miracle that the famous video ever saw the light of day.

At least now, thanks to the airing of the video, Peru has an opportunity to begin building a real democracy. The immediate challenge is to have honest elections. That may well not happen since Fujimori may want to stay in power, but not in office, by ensuring who his successor will be.

The new president, whoever he is or whatever his intentions, will still have intelligence services and people eager to run them, however. Power will still be concentrated in the hands of the executive branch, and Congress will be as feckless as ever. Some journalists will struggle to publish the truth, but many of them will only want to ingratiate themselves with whoever is in charge.

As the days pass with no real action, it seems increasingly clear that Fujimori's surprise announcement may have had nothing to do with democracy or curbing corruption. It could be just a tactic for handling a power struggle with and within the military.

One thing that is certain is that Fujimori has spent his decade in power undermining the basic institutions of democracy in order to consolidate his hold on power. If Peru seizes this opportunity for reform, making those institutions into something even marginally meaningful will take at least as long.

Dennis Jett, who served as US ambassador to Peru, is dean of the International Center at the University of Florida and author of 'Why Peacekeeping Fails' (St. Martin's Press).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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