Dilemma in Peru: Constancy or Democracy?

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Despite all the hand-wringing over the dubious political tactics of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, it could be moderate opposition leader Alejandro Toledo who causes the U.S. and its interests the most heartache. On Sunday, after Toledo withdrew his candidacy in protest over election irregularities, Fujimori cruised to victory. But while the outcome of Sundayís vote was expected, the process was not lacking in drama: International monitors, disheartened by ongoing reports of corruption and ballot-fixing, left Peru in disgust last week, and Toledo continued his attacks on the regime, calling the Fujimori administration a "dictatorship." Reaction from the U.S. and Europe has consisted primarily of sharp words of disapproval; there have been allusions to sanctions, but as of Tuesday morning no direct threats had been made. "Disappointed" Western leaders will meet in Portugal later this week, where they may engage in a more vigorous argument for punishing Fujimori.

Those same leaders, however — in particular certain members of the Clinton administration — find themselves in a ticklish situation. After dropping out of the race last week, claiming his candidacy was moot in what he termed a thoroughly undemocratic election, Toledo promised Monday to launch a nationwide grassroots campaign calling for "peaceful resistance" in search of "clean" elections. And in the eyes of the U.S. State Department, percolating factional divisions could cause far more damage to Peruís delicate hold on stability than Fujimoriís continued presence. According to TIME senior correspondent William Dowell, "The real concern stemming from Fujimoriís handling of Sundayís elections is that it will lead to more (possibly violent) resistance from various forces within Peru." While the State Department is very much opposed to Fujimori installing himself as a strongman, says Dowell, they are prepared to give him some leeway. "Everyone recognizes Fujimori has done valuable things for Peru — and no one wants to create a situation in which heís vulnerable to a coup." Of course, Fujimoriís reputation in the U.S. as a harsh but effective force in anti-drug, anti-terrorism efforts will weigh heavily on the minds of would-be detractors — and may play a significant role in solidifying quiet international support for Fujimoriís third term.