Peru's Fujimori Tosses U.S. a Hot Potato

  • Share
  • Read Later
Peru's controversial election process looks set to provoke new street protests in Lima — and a painful decision in Washington. Opposition candidate Alejandro Toledo withdrew late Thursday from the May 28 presidential runoff election against President Alberto Fujimori, after Fujimori's government refused to comply with a call by election monitors to postpone the poll. The monitors of the Organization of American States, with Washington's backing, had expressed grave reservations over irregularities in the first-round ballot — won by Fujimori, but without a sufficient majority to avoid a runoff — and urged postponement in order to resolve problems including candidates' access to the media, monitors' access to the polling stations, and the bug-prone software used to tabulate results.

"Although Fujimori is ahead in the polls right now, Toledo is closing the gap and the president fears that postponing the election will allow Toledo's momentum to carry him to victory," says TIME Latin America bureau chief Tim McGirk. "But Fujimori is in a real jam, because if he doesn't postpone the election in line with guidelines laid down by the OAS monitoring group with the support of the Clinton administration, he runs the risk that the election result will be declared invalid and force the OAS and Washington to impose sanctions on Peru."

Cutting Fujimori loose would be a tough decision for the U.S. in light of the high praise he earned during his first two terms for eliminating much of his country's cocaine production, smashing the leftist guerrilla insurgencies of the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru movements, and reining in hyperinflation. "Despite its previous support of Fujimori, the U.S. has become concerned that he has, over the past year, resorted to increasingly populist and authoritarian measures to ensure that he stays in power, including rewriting the constitution to allow himself a third term in office," says McGirk. "So a lot of the goodwill he earned over eight years has drained away, both in Washington and among Peruvians themselves." Indeed, there is very little difference between Fujimori and his challenger on economic policy, although Toledo is promising political reforms. But Toledo's withdrawal strips the runoff election of any meaning, and that forces Washington, and Peru's Latin American neighbors, to either live with a Peruvian president whose election they've certified as undemocratic or else find a way of persuading the notoriously intractable Fujimori to back down without plunging his fragile country into chaos.