Despite success, leader of Peru faces challenges

Path to re-election open, but credibility at issue

May 21, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LIMA, Peru - Taking a break from a boisterous campaign rally recently in the colonial city of Cajamarca, President Alberto Fujimori pointed to a dark cloud gliding by above and cried, "Let there be rain for the farmers!"

Within moments, rain was pouring down and thousands were cheering.

"Don't worry," Fujimori said, laughing. "Everything is coordinated."

It has often seemed that way over the past 10 years, as Fujimori has effectively confronted troubles -including extreme inflation, terrorism, an invasion of narcotics traffickers, war with Ecuador and flooding caused by El Nino.

A day after the rainstorm, however, he faced a political crisis that will challenge his considerable pluck and power. Alejandro Toledo, his opponent in the May 28 runoff presidential election, dropped out of the race Thursday. Fujimori was left with an open field for victory and the prospect of a third five-year term, but one in which his legitimacy and credibility are likely to be questioned here and abroad.

Fujimori faces the possibility of protest marches, criticism from Washington and other capitals and, perhaps, economic sanctions from the U.S. Congress and the Organization of American States that could impede his fight against drug trafficking and unemployment.

Because he had overwhelming support, the 61-year-old president was able to face down international pressures after he suspended the operations of his Congress and Supreme Court in 1992. But Peru is badly split, with university students and labor unions preparing to mount the biggest street protests in more than a generation.

Fujimori, in effect, has become a victim of his success. Now that he has nearly defeated the terrorists of the Maoist Shining Path, a growing number of Peruvians are seeking an easing of his authoritarianism. In the past three years, even as terrorism waned, Fujimori did not ease his hold on power. He tightened it.

Fujimori decided he could run for re-election even though the constitution prohibits three consecutive terms. He had three judges dismissed by Congress when they disagreed with his legal interpretation that the constitutional term limit did not cover his first term because it was completed before the constitution. He then established control over several television networks through legal maneuvers and withdrew Peru from the jurisdiction of a regional human rights court.

"He has been manipulating so much that even if he won fairly, people wouldn't believe it was a fair process," said Enrique Zileri, editor of the political magazine Caretas. "Whatever happens, Fujimori becomes a much weaker president who will be discredited internationally."

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