By Roger Atwood
LIMA – As President Alberto Fujimori dropped his ballot into the box during Peru’s charade of an election on May 28, it was hard to escape the feeling that this smiling dictator believed he had finally reached the objective he has been working for since 1992, when he shut down Congress and took direct control of the courts: a one-party state. The fact that he achieved this goal thanks to a boycott of the election by the opposition didn’t seem to lessen or cheapen the victory for him. The television channels, every one of them allied with Fujimori except for a cable station that fewer than 5 percent of Peruvians can see, merrily reported that the President had won the runoff election with about 80 percent of the â€œvalid votes.â€ Not until the next day did they report that he actually won barely 50 percent, according to the official count, when ballots that voters had intentionally spoiled were factored in. â€œMassive turnout at the polls,â€ announced one station, neglecting to mention that if you don’t vote in Peru your identity papers are nullified unless you pay a fine equal to about one-third of a monthly minimum wage. There were no independent observers for this election; they all refused to participate because it was so obviously rigged. The morning after the election, Fujimori’s Cabinet gathered to congratulate the President on his â€œoverwhelming victory.â€
Yet just when his power should be at its high-water mark, it’s clear to many Peruvians that this election may well have planted the seeds of Fujimori’s downfall. For the first time in his ten years in office, Fujimori now has a formidable challenger, Alejandro Toledo, with international connections, the power to draw crowds and an unnerving way of shaking off the smear campaigns of the progovernment yellow press. Toledo, an articulate Stanford-educated economist from a poor background, does not seriously challenge Fujimori’s neoliberal economic policies, though he gives them a more populist spin.
Toledo called on his supporters to boycott the election or scribble â€œNo to fraudâ€ on their ballots. Vote counters found fistfuls of these defaced ballots, which, when added to the votes for Toledo (who was still on the ballot) and those who didn’t vote at all, surpassed 50 percent of Peru’s registered voters. â€œThis election is null and void,â€ Toledo told a crowd estimated at about 60,000 in Lima’s Plaza San MartÃn that night. The plaza shook with chants of â€œSin democracia, no hay soluciÃ³n!â€ and â€œQueremos democracia!â€ All but one of the major candidates from the first round were there on the stage with Toledo. Events at the plaza were virtually ignored by local television channels.
By refusing to participate in the election and getting a large share of Peruvians to do the same, Toledo has called Fujimori’s bluff. Fujimori has kept enough of a veneer of democracy to prevent Washington from cutting him off and to keep the support of international creditors, but that veneer has grown thinner every year. Now Toledo has stripped it away and shown that Fujimori can no longer say he serves at the pleasure of his people. If Fujimori can dominate the media, get TV stations to refuse to broadcast his opponents’ advertising, hand out everything from land titles to laptops at his rallies and still win only 50 percent – if you believe the official count – he has big problems. Add to that international isolation, and it’s hard to see how he can carry on for a five-year term without at least calling new elections.
Toledo is not the perfect spokesman for the anti-Fujimori movement. He’s prone to rash statements under pressure and has an embarrassing habit of comparing himself to Martin Luther King Jr., Corazon Aquino and Gandhi. Many Latin Americans assume he has US support or even that he is some kind of creation of el Tio Sam to keep Fujimori in line. This is an impression that Fujimori’s Vice President, Francisco Tudela, has done his utmost to foster. It’s true that Toledo has made much of his career in the States, but when he came to Washington in April, not a single senior official met with him. President Clinton waited until forty-eight hours before the runoff election to announce that relations with Peru would â€œinevitably be affectedâ€ by Fujimori’s refusal to postpone the elections, as the OAS and Toledo had long urged.
The truth is that the United States would rather not see Fujimori go. He has cooperated on drug trafficking and cut coca production by about two-thirds since taking office, according to Lima. In the chaotic Andean region, with Colombia in civil war, Ecuador changing presidents faster than socks and Venezuela looking more and more shaky under President Hugo Chavez, Fujimori’s Peru has been a prickly but stable ally. Washington sent a clear message recently by replacing outspoken Ambassador to Peru Dennis Jett, who irritated Fujimori and was liked by his opponents, with a lower-profile diplomat. The State Department backtracked after initially calling the election illegitimate and invalid, reportedly in deference to the OAS, which was considering what action to take. Fujimori is gambling that he can ride out the international criticism.
In Latin America, however, semiclosed systems from Mexico to Chile are yielding to pressure to open up. What the 60,000 people in Plaza MartÃn proved was that once people get a taste of democracy, it’s not as easy to take it away as the Fujimoris of the world might suppose.
Roger Atwood has written about Peru for various publications.