Defiance by Fujimori Puts U.S in a Bind

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What if they held an election and nobody came? Well, it would create a major headache for Washington, for one thing. Peru's election commission announced Thursday that it would go ahead with Sunday's planned runoff presidential poll, despite an opposition boycott and pleas from U.S. and international observers to postpone the vote. The decision provoked violent demonstrations in three Peruvian cities overnight by opposition supporters who charge that President Alberto Fujimori is trying to steal a third presidential term through electoral fraud and other irregularities. The legitimacy of the process has also been challenged by the U.S. and Latin American countries in the Organization of American States, whose election monitors reported numerous irregularities in the first round of balloting and urged a delay in the runoff to deal with vulnerabilities in the computer system used to count the votes. Opposition candidate Alejandro Toledo has withdrawn in protest from the runoff race against Fujimori, and the OAS on Thursday formally withdrew its observers from Sunday's poll, declaring it impossible to guarantee that it would be free or fair.

The fact that the international community's own monitors have denied the legitimacy of Fujimori's reelection creates a real problem for the U.S. and its Latin American allies. The tough-cop president has had strong backing from Washington over the past eight years as he faced down two leftist guerrilla insurgencies, curbed drug cultivation and tamed his country's rampant inflation. But fears of electoral fraud prompted President Clinton in April to sign legislation allowing him to impose political, economic and military sanctions against Peru in response to electoral irregularities — a move designed to pressure President Fujimori to play fair at the polls. But Fujimori has called the Clinton administration's bluff, leaving Washington facing the uncomfortable prospect of having to put the squeeze on an erstwhile friend and key drug-war ally even as his economically fragile country is seized by a new bout of political turmoil.