Peru’s president, Mr. Alberto Fujimori, dropped a political bombshell last weekend when he announced that he would call new elections as soon as possible after his security chief, Mr. Vladimiro Montesinos, was shown bribing opposition politicians. The move is welcome: Mr. Fujimori’s re-election to a third term was tainted by charges that the bid itself was unconstitutional and the election was unfair. Mr. Montesinos was reputed to exercise immense power behind the scenes, and was thought to be the chief force behind the alleged perversion of the campaign. Peru needs transparency and the rule of law. Mr. Fujimori’s decisions to step down — he will not run in the new election — and to cashier Mr. Montesinos are a good start.
Mr. Fujimori is Latin America’s longest-serving leader — and perhaps the most controversial. When he first ran for office in 1990, he was a virtually unknown agriculture professor and engineer. His background endeared him to Peru’s peasants, who rallied behind him and his no-nonsense approach to government. They stayed behind him as he declared a “self-coup” in 1992 and ruled as virtual dictator for eight months. He used that power to break the Sendero Luminoso guerrilla organization, ram legislation through an obstructionist legislature and force reform on his country. He turned the economy around and won powerful allies in Washington by cutting the country’s coca production in half.
Yet the Fujimori magic wore out. The economy stalled and opposition mounted. Opposition leader Alejandro Toledo posted a serious threat to the president’s hopes for a third term. Mr. Fujimori was forced to hold a runoff in elections held earlier this spring, even though international observers deemed the vote flawed and unfair. When Mr. Toledo refused to participate in the second round, Mr. Fujimori was re-elected. His country faced growing international isolation, however.
Although a number of charges have been leveled against the president and his entourage, no proof had ever been offered. The long-missing evidence was provided last week with the broadcast of a videotape that showed Mr. Montesinos paying opposition members to join the government and give the president a majority in the legislature. In response, Mr. Fujimori said he was calling new elections and would break up the National Intelligence Service, which Mr. Montesinos heads.
That may be easier said than done. The security chief is a sinister figure. He has been accused of spying for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, trafficking in drugs and arms, and turning the intelligence service into an organization above the law and responsible only to him. Mr. Montesinos is considered to be the power behind the presidency; he is believed to have brokered the deal that won Mr. Fujimori the presidency in 1990 and has kept him there ever since.
Mr. Fujimori’s announcement was applauded both at home and abroad. In the days since, the president has been uncharacteristically silent and Mr. Montesinos has reportedly retreated to an army camp, prompting fears of a coup attempt. There are conflicting reports whether he has been arrested.
The developments suggest that the military is divided. The videotape could only have been provided by elements of the armed services that oppose Mr. Montesinos. Reportedly, attempts by the intelligence services to arrest the individual suspected of supplying the tape were blocked by military officials.
By almost all accounts, bribery is not the issue for the military. Rather, it is Mr. Montesinos’ alleged involvement in an arms deal with leftist rebels in Colombia. Originally, Mr. Montesinos claimed to have uncovered the arrangement; recently, however, he has been identified as a participant. That, in combination with the other misdeeds, was apparently too much for some members of the military. Apart from financing a rebel group that could eventually threaten their own country, it threatened Peru’s relationship with the United States.
Peru needs a fresh start. Mr. Fujimori did much for his country, but his unwillingness to step down jeopardized those accomplishments. New elections are needed, but they must be fair. Time must be provided so that all candidates can prepare. The intelligence services must be reined in to ensure that no candidate enjoys an advantage. An independent body should be charged with investigating their past conduct and establishing safeguards to see that they are not repeated. Peru’s friends must make it clear that they will not turn a blind eye to a coup. Mr. Fujimori has not said when the elections will be held. Worse, he is spoken of a “surprise” in the 2006 elections, hinting that he may run again. Stability, not “surprises,” is what his country needs most now.
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