Peru’s President Alberto Fujimori may be fighting for his political life, but he maintains his flair for the dramatic. Last week, he personally led a manhunt for Mr. Vladimiro Montesinos, the former head of the National Intelligence Service, who returned to Peru after fleeing the country on the heels of a bribery scandal. The search was unsuccessful. Mr. Montesinos remains at large, and Mr. Fujimori’s government remains shaky. But it is more important than ever that the government’s priorities do not change: Peru’s new elections must proceed as planned and respect for democracy is essential.

Mr. Fujimori and Mr. Montesinos have a curious relationship. The former intelligence chief has been the president’s right-hand man throughout his 10 years in office and reportedly facilitated the president’s rise to power and ensured that he stayed there. Mr. Montesinos allegedly controlled the military and could command its loyalty. That power became a threat when the president and Mr. Montesinos split earlier this year.

The intelligence chief had long dodged charges that he was a CIA informant, a human-rights abuser and an arms smuggler. He was brought low in September, when he was captured on videotape bribing an opposition legislator to support the government. That bombshell forced Mr. Fujimori, who had just a won a third term in an election marred by charges of fraud allegedly engineered by Mr. Montesinos, to announce he would cut short his term and call another vote in which he would not run.

Mr. Montesinos fled to Panama — with suspicious ease — where he sought political asylum. That request was denied, and Mr. Montesinos returned to Peru. The ease with which he re-entered the country raised doubts about Mr. Fujimori’s commitment to prosecuting his former ally as well as concerns about the loyalty of the armed forces. Thus the televised drama featuring the president — who styles himself a man of action — leading the manhunt for his former associate.

To no one’s surprise, Mr. Montesinos eluded capture, raising doubts about the sincerity of the entire exercise — or at least Mr. Fujimori’s role in it. But late-night meetings with military officials, a purge of army officers feared loyal to Mr. Montesinos and orders to confine troops to their barracks all attest to Mr. Fujimori’s efforts to ensure his control over the military.

While the nation is absorbed with this sideshow, Peru must not lose sight of another objective: holding the elections that Mr. Fujimori promised. The furor over Mr. Montesinos’ return derailed negotiations between Mr. Fujimori and the opposition over the election date and the transition prior to the vote. The hurried intervention of Mr. Cesar Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States, produced a breakthrough last week.

The government agreed to an April 8 election date and dropped its insistence that there be a general amnesty, which would have protected Mr. Fujimori, Mr. Montesinos and others implicated in human-rights abuses. The Fujimori administration has an admirable record — eliminating a Marxist guerrilla threat and breaking the back of Peru’s drug trade — but democracy and human rights were trampled in the process. Members of the government and the military have a well-founded fear of being held accountable for their actions.

The settling of scores is not inevitable. In fact, doing that could create a cycle of injustice and undermine Peru’s fragile hopes of moving toward genuine democracy. The opposition is likely to win a free and fair election, and its first task should be unifying the country, restoring the rule of law and ending the abuses that have become common place during the last decade. Vengeance has no place in that agenda.

If Mr. Montesinos is to pay for his acts — and there is much he must answer for — then the case should be initiated under the current regime. A final verdict would be delivered under the new government. That is a workable division of labor, and one that would make justice look less like revenge.

There will be considerable temptations to backslide. Mr. Fujimori has always believed that he knows what is best for his country, and laws and human rights were nuisances at best. This most recent agreement, however, is one he must be made to honor. Mr. Fujimori’s record in office is mixed. He did much to help his country, but he also did much to compound its pains. His finest legacy would be leaving it a stronger, more democratic government, with respect for the rule of law. Peru’s friends should help him in that effort.

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