Few world leaders are as perplexing as Peru’s president, Mr. Alberto Fujimori. Both sides of his complex personality have been on display in recent weeks: the taciturn autocrat who defies international opinion to hold an election and the leader who wins that vote with substantial popular support. But his third election win last weekend may be his most costly yet. His country is divided, and his tactics have been almost unanimously condemned in foreign capitals. Mr. Fujimori is counting on a return to normalcy in Peru. If the world acquiesces to his continued rule, he may get it. If it does not, he may be forced to go.
Mr. Fujimori was an unlikely president. When he first ran for office in 1990, he was a virtually unknown agriculture teacher and engineer, the son of working-class Japanese immigrants. That background endeared him to the peasant classes that support him still — they see him as one of their own. His virtues are uncontested: He is hardworking, quick to make fun of himself and has excellent political instincts.
His successes are impressive. His economic policies tamed hyperinflation and resulted in growth of about 7 percent annually, until 1997, when Peru was hit by the Asian crisis and the El Nino weather phenomenon. He broke the back of the Sendero Luminoso guerrilla group and in 1997 launched the daring raid to free hostages at the Japanese Embassy. In addition, his government won the support of the United States by halving coca production — the raw material of cocaine — in five years.
But success has come at a high price. After growing increasingly frustrated with his opponents’ tactics, Mr. Fujimori dissolved the legislature and judiciary in 1992 and ruled as a virtual dictator for eight months. When the “self-coup” was over, his grip on power had intensified, and he won re-election two years later. Since then, his political opponents have been marginalized, attacked or run out of the country. A shadowy intelligence adviser seems to exercise vast power on the president’s behalf.
In the most recent election, virtually all the levers of government control were deployed in support of the president. His chief rival, Mr. Alejandro Toledo, was rendered invisible when the mass media refused to cover his campaign. International observers cast serious doubts on the fairness of the election, alleging, among other things, that the computer system that counted votes was not secure. When Mr. Fujimori refused to postpone the runoff, the monitors withdrew and Mr. Toledo boycotted the vote, urging his supporters to cast blank or defaced ballots.
Mr. Fujimori was not deterred. The election went ahead as scheduled and the president claimed more than 51 percent of the vote, nearly 75 percent when the bad ballots were subtracted from the total. The results were denounced by many countries, although Latin American governments spoke merely of the need to defend democracy. Foreign Minister Yohei Kono called the holding of the runoff “regrettable,” and said the large number of invalid ballots had to be “taken seriously.”
Mr. Fujimori is banking on the controversy subsiding. He is hoping that the progress in the drug war will win U.S. support — and continuation of the $128 million in aid Peru receives annually from Washington. He may be disappointed. The U.S. government has condemned the vote in unequivocal language. The prospect of diminished U.S. aid could increase discontent in the middle ranks of the Peruvian military, which is reportedly upset with the number of Fujimori supporters above them.
Their grievances are matched by those of tens of thousands of Toledo supporters who have taken to the streets to protest the runoff. Mr. Toledo has called for a nonviolent campaign against the government.
The president has dismissed his critics, both at home and abroad, while promising to “begin a totally authentic democratization of the country.” He must do just that. Until now, Mr. Fujimori has dealt with his opponents one at a time. This time, however, he faces a coalition of foes. There is a danger for Mr. Fujimori if all those elements coalesce. Mass protest is very possible: About half the population of Peru lives in poverty and only 50 percent of the workforce has a steady job.
The Organization of American States should take the lead in this situation. They have the most at stake: Mr. Fujimori’s willingness to ride roughshod over democracy ultimately threatens their own legitimacy. There is little chance that Mr. Fujimori is going to back down; it is not his style. Genuine political paralysis will be the ultimate test for the president. His willingness to agree to a compromise that returns real democracy to Peru would be the best legacy he could leave his embattled country.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.