Vanessa Robbiano became so disgusted with her country's electoral fraud and corruption last year that she undertook a simple but memorable political protest: handwashing the Peruvian flag in a public square for months on end.
Shortly before Sunday's election of Alejandro Toledo as president, Ms. Robbiano brought her dirty-laundry protest to a halt. But her views mirror those of many in a society recovering from an "elected dictatorship" and still unfolding malfeasance.
"Our democracy is still very fragile," says Ms. Robbiano. "We learned the hard way what can happen when the political system closes up and operates for the benefit of a few."
Victory for Mr. Toledo, the one-time shoeshine boy who claimed the support of Andean gods and Peru's Inca ancestors, culminates one of the most tumultuous periods in Latin America's decade of transition to democracy.
Putting Peru's democracy back on solid footing and restoring confidence in a country morally flat on the mat, says Robbiano, will require citizens to demand accountability from their leaders.
"The dictatorship broke this country's institutions, broke the Congress, broke the justice system, broke political parties," says Luis Nunes, director of the National Democratic Institute in Lima. "There's a lot of rebuilding to do."
Toledo defeated former President Alan Garcia by a comfortable margin of about 4 percent - 52 to 48. The results suggest that a significant number of voters who a week ago told pollsters they were either still undecided or would vote for neither choice finally opted for Toledo.
Peruvians say they now hope to find the same fighting spirit in Toledo as president that the Stanford-trained economist demonstrated in his pro-democracy battle with Alberto Fujimori. "Toledo's a fighter, he fought against the dictatorship, and I think he'll fight for Peru now," says Angelica Rios Bazalar, a Lima nursing student.
A year ago Toledo boycotted a runoff election he was to enter with Fujimori after a first-round vote in April 2000 that national and international observers agreed was rife with fraud. Fujimori won a coveted but controversial third five-year term, but remained under heavy pressure from pro-democracy forces led by Toledo.
Toledo spearheaded a giant national protest march against Fujimori's third swearing-in in July. But then a corruption scandal involving Fujimori spy chief and right-hand man, Vladimiro Montesinos, erupted in September (and continues to shake the country). By December Fujimori was gone, exiled in Japan.
Peru now needs some top-down reforms if it is to repair its democracy and reestablish the confidence necessary to revive the economy. Investors frightened away by the spectacle of rampant corruption - as revealed by hundreds of tapes made by Mr. Montesinos and showing a pantheon of politicians, business leaders, and military officials arranging dirty deals - won't return without solid signs of a cleanup.
"Ours is an underdeveloped country, and we need a leader who knows how to fight his way out of that underdevelopment," said Jesus Marabi Mendoza, a building contractor, noting how Toledo used education to rise from childhood poverty and marginalization. "His fight for democracy makes me hope he'll do the same now for education and against corruption."
Analysts and pro-democracy activists say Toledo should build on the work of interim President Valentin Paniagua, who in his few months as president has won Peruvians' respect. Mr. Paniagua created several commissions, including ones to fight corruption and investigate human rights abuses of the past 20 years.
Paniagua also acted quickly to remove and even imprison a number of military officers involved in cases of corruption. But a full reform of the armed forces is still ahead, observers say.
Beyond that, however, Toledo must spearhead a reform of the state requiring either constitutional reforms or perhaps a new constitution altogether to replace Fujimori's 1993 Constitution, observers say.
"There are so many crucial reforms ahead, of the state, to establish true decentralization, reform in regional financing, reform of the electoral and justice systems, but these reforms will require two-thirds approval of the Congress," says Juan Abugattas, University of Lima political scientist. "This is going to be difficult for Toledo ... because he hasn't even a majority behind him."
Toledo's political movement, Peru Posible, has 45 seats in a 120-seat unicameral Congress. Peru's political leaders will have to learn to negotiate and form majorities, something that observers note is not traditionally part of Peru's political culture.
Concepts like "reform of the state" may sound distant and less urgent than pressing needs like job creation, but some leaders say the economy will be jumpstarted only with institutional reform that tackles Peru's centralization and encourages broad citizen participation in government.
"The current Constitution is too presidential, and concentrates too much power in certain ministries," says Francisco Santa Cruz, head of the Paniagua government's project for transferring power. "The imbalance discourages a focus where we need it - in decentralization, agriculture, rural government and education."
Mr. Santa Cruz says Peru, like many other Latin American countries, must also rebuild its political parties as constructive actors in political reform.
Yet despite evident skepticism and fatigue among Peruvians - Peru has organized four expensive presidential votes in a little over a year - there are signs of a desire in civil society to recover a central role in government.
Democracy and hippie ideals
"Other movements we've adopted, especially the young people, came from outside, like the hippie ideal," says actress Robbiano. "But this fight for democracy and against corruption, dictatorship, and violence, this is ours, this is specific to Latin America, and I can feel that people want to be part of it."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor