Shady Tactics Said to Cloud Fujimori's Future, No Matter How Peruvians Vote

The New York Times -- 8 April 2000

by Clifford Krauss

LIMA, Peru -- For a decade, President Alberto K. Fujimori has been Latin America's master of crisis management, defeating terrorist insurrections, hyperinflation and drug traffickers, as well as settling a 150-year border dispute with neighboring Ecuador.

But as 14 million voters decide on Sunday whether these successes should translate into five more years in office, Mr. Fujimori faces his most serious political crisis since he shut down the Congress and Supreme Court at the height of the guerrilla war in 1992.

Even if he ekes out a first-round election victory, diplomats and experts say, the campaign has been so marred by dirty tricks and legal irregularities that Mr. Fujimori will emerge a weakened leader. Several leading pollsters say a first-round win is unlikely unless the president resorts to fraud, and election observers have already received reports of preparations to steal the vote.

"The accumulation of irregularities has meant that even if the vote on Sunday goes without fraud, President Fujimori's third term will be seen as illegitimate here and abroad," said Eduardo Stein, a former Guatemalan foreign minister, who is leading an 80-member Organization of American States observation team.

"This was not a fair competition," he added, "and if the landscape of campaign irregularities is replicated on the day of the vote, it will be a disaster."

The outcome is important not only to Peru, where the little real debate and independent media coverage the campaign has generated has been infused by discussion of the legitimacy of the electoral process itself. It is also likely to reverberate throughout a region where many countries are still struggling to define the quality of their democracies. This is particularly so in Venezuela, where another elected strongman who has bent his country's democratic rules, President Hugo Chávez, is facing a growing challenge in an election set for May.

A stolen victory would also place the United States in the awkward position of having to decide whether to censure an important ally in the effort to wipe out the drug trafficking and insurgency that threaten the government in nearby Colombia.

The challenge to Mr. Fujimori is being led by Alejandro Toledo, a 54-year-old business school professor whose rise from humble roots has helped spur his popularity. He has also capitalized on the growing concerns about the campaign as well as grumbling over three years of particularly bad economic hardship.

Press and television smear campaigns believed to be directed by Mr. Fujimori's intelligence service destroyed the candidacies of two leading opponents, catapulting Mr. Toledo into contention.

The campaign has been dominated over the last three months by a scandal over the forgery of a million signatures to put Mr. Fujimori on the ballot, egg-throwing mobs at opposition rallies and microphones that went dead in the middle of opponents' speeches. There have also been persistent reports from around the country that recipients of government milk and cereal handouts have been threatened with a cutoff if they do not attend Fujimori rallies and vote for the president.

As Mr. Fujimori tried feverishly to stop Mr. Toledo, television networks owned by allies of the president began broadcasting a comedian impersonating the challenger sitting next to a whiskey bottle. Nude dancers appeared at a Toledo campaign rally this week with television cameras in tow for live broadcasts, inspiring speculation by many Peruvians and senior foreign election observers that the dancers were planted by the Fujimori campaign. At the same time, an active duty army officer was assigned to fetch a young girl from the provinces said to be the illegitimate daughter of Mr. Toledo for the broadcast of a television talk show. And the government began an investigation into the status of the residency visa of Mr. Toledo's wife, Eliane Karp, a Belgian-born naturalized American citizen.

Mr. Toledo has denied the variety of charges leveled against him, and pollsters say he has actually surged in recent days in Lima, a Fujimori stronghold with more than a third of the nation's votes. Mr. Toledo has already vowed that he would cry fraud should he lose on Sunday. The campaign irregularities have been severely criticized by the Clinton administration, the Organization of American States and several public interest groups like the Atlanta-based Carter Center.

Senior diplomats here are already talking about drastic remedies in case of fraud, including calls for a new election and withdrawing recognition of the government by the Organization of American States. The mounting political problems in Peru will confront the organization with one of its biggest tests in years, officials of the group said privately. They said they expected Canada and the United States to try to mediate any conflict. "It's a moment of great crisis for the regime," said Enrique Zileri, editor of Caretas, Peru's leading political magazine. "If Fujimori wins in the first round, a government that is totally isolated and lacking legitimacy would result."

Questions about the election process began emerging as far back as May 1997, when Congress dismissed three members of the Constitutional Tribunal who had ruled that the law forbade Mr. Fujimori from running for a third term. The opposition assembled enough signatures to force a referendum on a third term in 1998, when Congress, which is tightly controlled by Mr. Fujimori, ruled that two-thirds of the legislators would also have to approve of a referendum, sinking the vote.

By the time Mr. Fujimori announced his candidacy last December, the opposition had no way of challenging the legality of his campaign. There has been sporadic violence over the issue, which has intensified in recent days at rallies around the country, but no leader has emerged to channel the discontent.

Now Mr. Toledo, who has said the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is his hero, says he is ready to lead a vast civil disobedience movement to protest the results should he lose.

He has made a special plea to the army and police to guard the election process. And to make his candidacy more attractive to them, he has promised to raise police salaries and allow military personnel to vote in the future. His pleas have been backed by senior retired military officers who oppose Mr. Fujimori, and there are persistent reports of discontent about the electoral process among middle-rank army officers.

International observers have already expressed fears of an organized effort by Mr. Fujimori's allies to steal the election, even with the help of election officials and senior military officers.

The Organization of American States observer team has received numerous reports indicating that backers of Mr. Fujimori are training hand-picked poll watchers in how to mangle vote tally sheets that have large Toledo vote counts so that they will be disqualified. In 1995, 8 percent of tally sheets were disqualified in the presidential vote and 40 percent in the vote for Congress, enough to guarantee Mr. Fujimori's control, according to election observers.

Other international observers have received reports that voters dependent on government food and social programs have been given ballots already marked for Mr. Fujimori and his congressional slate. The voters -- observers say they are not sure how many may be involved -- have been instructed to return the blank ballots they receive at the voting places for payments ranging from about $1.50 to $3.

Observers say that fewer than half of the 88,000 voting tables will be monitored by independent election inspectors. They also note that, after being counted, ballots are immediately destroyed on election day, depriving observers crucial evidence of potential fraud. Tally sheets, however, will be preserved.

In an effort to detect fraud, a local group, Transparencia, which is financed by the Clinton administration and several other foreign governments, will announce its own estimate of the vote count Sunday night from thousands of sample voting tables.

"They have problems," Carlos Tapia, formerly a lecturer at the Army Superior Intelligence School, said of the Fujimori campaign. "They can fudge 4 or 5 percent of the vote, but no more."