Seizing Peru's opportunity

Although politics in Peru will remain unsettled and uncertain for some time to come, there are reasons for some optimism that democracy will regain a foothold in the coming year.

President Fujimori's surprise announcement - just two months after starting his third term -that he planned to call new elections and leave office was good news for Peru's democratic renewal. This is precisely what Peru's opposition groups had been demanding ever since their candidate, Alejandro Toledo, withdrew from the May 28th run-off vote that Mr. Fujimori had rigged in his own favor.

A smooth and successful return to demo-cratic government will depend mainly on the government and Army sticking to their promise of new elections next spring, but Peru's opposition forces also have a key part to play. Their first challenge is to reach agreement with the Fujimori regime, which plans to stay in power through July, on the rules and procedures that will govern the new elections.

Nothing is now more important than making the electoral process fair and competitive - which must include assurances of a free press and a credible oversight authority.

This is where the energy of opposition leaders and the international community should be focused. It would be a dangerous mistake to allow other issues to divert attention from this central task.

Moreover, opposition leaders need to reach common ground and establish some working relationship with the president and other authorities. Confrontation is not the way to proceed, certainly not now that the government has already agreed to new elections. (On these grounds, arranging political asylum in Panama for Fujimori's venomous security adviser, Vladimiro Montesinos, rather than arresting him in Peru, was the sensible course to take - although at some point he should be made accountable for his crimes.)

The sooner there is an agreement on the essentials of the electoral process, the better. A public commitment to such an agreement will further constrain the Fujimori government and the armed forces, and the leverage of the international community will increase once there is an accord among Peruvians that it can legitimately seek to enforce. That is where the international community will be most effective and influential - making both sides stick to their promises. There is likely to be consensus among the international actors about holding the Peruvian government, and the opposition, to its electoral commitments.

No one, at this point, can provide a waterproof guarantee that fair elections will be held. Fujimori may yet have something up his sleeve. But it is also true that the Peruvian president has some strong incentives to cooperate with the opposition to manage a smooth transition to a new government.

This is the one way Fujimori has to redeem himself, to make it more likely that the Peruvian people will remember him for his success in ending Peru's brutal insurgency and restoring economic sanity to the country - and not for snuffing out democracy and perpetrating electoral fraud. It is also the way for him to retain his credibility to run again for president, which he says is his ambition.

In addition, Fujimori -although clearly politically weaker than he was several weeks ago - may be the only one in Peru who commands sufficient political authority to make the transition work.

After an uncomfortable delay, the Army has expressed support for Fujimori's plans for new elections (although the depth of that support, admittedly, is uncertain). With or without Mr. Montesinos in the country, no one can be very certain about the intentions of Peru's intelligence services - an autonomous and justifiably feared center of power - but no one other than Fujimori will have much ability to keep them under control.

And it should be remembered President Fujimori retains considerable popular support. Replacing him now would could produce an even more unsettled and insecure situation.

No one can be sure that democratic politics will return to Peru in the coming period. Huge obstacles remain. But the chances are better than they have been in a long time.

One thing is crucial. As hard as it will be for them to swallow after being bullied for so many years, the opposition forces - with the help of the international community - now need to engage the Fujimori government to assure that new presidential elections take place early next year.

-- Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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