What's next for Peruvian democracy?

The strange chapter of Alberto Fujimori's rule in Peru is ending like a warning label for leaders across Latin America.

Caution, it reads: Sacrifice goals like development of democracy's institutions and reduction of poverty on the altar of short-term interests such as stability and order at your peril.

Having already cut short a third five-year term by calling new presidential elections for April, the enigmatic Mr. Fujimori resigned Monday in a letter sent to Congress from a stay in Japan. The Japanese-descent president Peruvians either revered or despised as "El Chino" ruled Peru for a decade. That reign is sure to be remembered as a parable in how personal leadership, distrustful of other constitutional powers, can come crashing down.

"This is a lesson not just for Latin Americans but for the international bodies, and even the US government, that promoted a particular economic model here," says Santiago Pedraglio, a Lima political analyst. "The idea of trading solid democratic institutions and the rule of law for order and economic growth seemed to work for a time," he continues. "But without economic growth it all fell like a house of cards."

In dealing with Peru's armed forces, intelligence services, and issues of internal order, "Fujimori opted for the worst alternative - personal control," says Enrique Obando, a Lima political scientist.

Fujimori won a third term in May in a runoff election boycotted by the opposition. Fujimori's troubles began in earnest in September when his notorious spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos was caught on tape bribing an opposition member of Congress to switch to Fujimori's side, giving the president unfettered legislative control.

The ensuing scandal prompted Fujimori's initial decision to call early elections and leave office in July 2001. But as Mr. Montesinos first fled the country and then disappeared upon his return to Peru, a president once considered omnipotent became something closer to a treed fox.

Abandoned by once-staunch-defender, first Vice President Francisco Tudela (who resigned last month), hounded by a newly emancipated press, and less influential in Congress, Fujimori became increasingly entangled in corruption inquiries involving Montesinos and military officers.

Allegations have surfaced that the millions of dollars Montesinos stashed in foreign bank accounts are linked to Fujimori as well. The jailed brother of slain Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar claimed earlier this month that Escobar drug money helped finance Fujimori's first presidential campaign.

Such charges, although unproven, have fueled speculation that Fujimori will run for Congress in April - if only to achieve legislative immunity.

While Fujimori once counted on the allegiance of Peru's poor masses as a result of his advocacy of antipoverty programs, public support nosedived as the smiling "El Chino" seemed to lose his regal power. "Latin America should realize once and for all that there is no democratic stability if the population's basic material needs are not met," says Alberto Adrianzen, a Lima political consultant.

Fujimori was able to get away with closing down Congress in 1993 and even won World Bank praise for his application of tough economic prescriptions. "But," says Mr. Pedraglio, "that couldn't make up for the lack of solid institutions."

Now many Peruvians predict their country will be better able to go about the business of rebuilding institutions and developing a balance of powers.

Despite Peru's rudderless ship and scandal-a-minute intrigue, the public is surprisingly calm and prospects for stability through the April elections are good, analysts agree. The key could be formation of a consensus caretaker government focused more on Peru's well-being than on revenge.

If first Vice President Tudela (whose resignation is yet to be accepted by Congress) remains out of the picture, Peru's presidency would be assumed by second Vice President Ricardo Marquez, according to the Constitution.

But speculation is rising that Marquez could step down, making way for Valentin Paniagua - last week elected president of a Congress now controlled by Fujimori opponents - to take the transitional presidency. Another option is that Marquez remain in office but name a prime minister with broad backing who would in effect govern until after elections next year.

Fujimori's loss of congressional control and, now, his early departure from the presidency make it less likely he'll have much behind-the-scenes influence on the April election.

But the new situation also challenges candidates like Alejandro Toledo, who forced "El Chino" into a runoff last April, to campaign more on proposals with an eye to the future than in opposition to a controversial president.

"Toledo based his position on fighting Fujimori," says Mirko Lauer, a columnist for the pro-opposition Lima newspaper La Republica. Now, "without Fujimori, Toledo is going to have to redefine himself."

Some leaders outside Peru may want to consider Fujimori's denouement and do a little redefining themselves. Analyst Obando points to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in particular.

"To a certain extent we're seeing Chavez repeat this same story," he says of the leader who is concentrating powers in his own hands and placing increasing confidence in military officials.

"Unfortunately, it looks like he's learning very little from his neighbor."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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