Slipping in Polls, Fujimori Courts Peru's Indians

The New York Times -- March 21, 2000

by Clifford Krauss

PUNO, Peru -- Slipping in the polls and besieged by international criticism over campaign irregularities, President Alberto K. Fujimori has been fighting off altitude sickness, putting on Indian garb and cutting ribbons across this Andean country in a flourish of pork-barrel politics.

Visiting this 12,000-foot-high city on Lake Titicaca today, Mr. Fujimori never asked the people for their votes, even though presidential elections are only three weeks away. But the message was implicit, and the photo opportunity was golden.

The Aymara-speaking Indians here shouted out their support as Mr. Fujimori removed his oxygen mask and strutted to the podium. Scores of officers from the national police smartly marched by, as row after row of new, shiny police vans rotated their emergency lights in unison to welcome the nation's leader.

"We Peruvians have had to travel a long, difficult road these last 15 years against terrorism and hyperinflation," Mr. Fujimori told the audience of 300 police officers and Indian residents. "With great pride and satisfaction, I hand over these vehicles so you can fight delinquency and we never have to go back to the days of insecurity."

In the last few weeks, Mr. Fujimori has raised the minimum wage 18 percent, to $118 a month, and handed tiny pieces of property to more than 150,000 peasants and urban squatters at bargain-basement prices. He has set in motion the procurement of 1,400 tractors for nearly 1,000 communities and begun a huge dike-building project to make the cragged highlands bloom.

And as he did here today, the president is distributing a new fleet of 1,700 Land Cruiser police vans across the country just in time for the presidential and congressional elections on April 9.

To soften his image, Mr. Fujimori recently lifted government emergency powers in the last remaining rural areas where, to fight terrorism the military had the right to detain suspects without bringing charges and to enter houses without search warrants. But for all his efforts, a growing number of political experts are saying the man who has in 10 years in power reduced a vicious and expanding Maoist guerrilla army to a mere band of marauders and a 7,500 percent annual inflation rate to single digits may not win an outright majority and avert a runoff.

In a nationwide poll of 1,505 people last week by Datum International, Mr. Fujimori was favored by 39.6 percent. Alejandro Toledo, the director of a business school, was second, and catching up, with 25.2. Seven others are running well behind.

Experts note that the 61-year-old president did much better than polls predicted when he won his first election in 1990 and re-election in 1995 and that he could still pull off a victory next month.

But Mr. Toledo, who has strong Indian features and promises to be "the president of the poor," appears to be the strongest opponent Mr. Fujimori has ever faced among the poor Indian voters. They have in the past been drawn to Mr. Fujimori, who is of Japanese descent, in part because they see his Asian features as similar to theirs.

Mr. Fujimori's image of invincibility has been damaged in recent weeks by the widespread perception that he has lost control of his campaign and that the election process is badly flawed.

After mounting evidence that Mr. Fujimori's campaign workers forged a million signatures to place him on the ballot, one of the four parties that is backing him withdrew from the campaign last week along with two congressional candidates allied to the president. As the scandal has grown, the national electoral commission dismissed a senior official to ward off contentions that the election was fixed.

With its extensive aid program here, what the United States says carries great weight. And the Clinton administration has been highly critical of the election process in recent weeks. When Prime Minister Alberto Bustamante met senior State Department and White House officials on March 7, he was warned that a fixed election would have grave effects on relations between the two countries.

Two days later, a spokesman for the State Department, James P. Rubin, made headlines here with a checklist of demands to clean up the campaign. He called on Lima to "implement a directive that makes clear that the misuse of state resources for electoral advantage will be severely sanctioned" and to "investigate reports of harassment of opposition candidates and domestic election monitors and take action against those responsible."

Since then, opposition candidates have been given additional television time, and the government has set up a telephone line for complaints about campaign irregularities. Still, several newspapers and television stations widely believed to take their direction from Mr. Fujimori's intelligence service continue to circulate scurrilous reports about the opposition candidates, particularly Mr. Toledo.

In an interview today on his presidential plane, Mr. Fujimori took a conciliatory tone and promised a free election. "Some of the critical observations have been correct," Mr. Fujimori said. "It's possible that there has been harassment and that vehicles of the state have been used to benefit official candidates. We need to correct that when it happens."

He conceded that it was possible he would not win an outright victory on April 9, adding, "It's up to the people to decide."

As Mr. Fujimori's caravan left Puno for a tour of the countryside, he ordered the local police to stay in the city and patrol in the shiny new vans.

With only a handful of aides and a couple of bodyguards, he stopped the caravan at an Indian village, Jechuyo Pamaya, to inspect a rudimentary dike system dug on a hillside under government direction. Mr. Fujimori's new pet project, designed to stop rainwater from flowing down the mountains and to create an underground reserve from which to grow high grasses and trees, is a throwback to Inca technology.

Between gulps of air from his oxygen mask, Mr. Fujimori climbed a rocky hill as 30 awestruck Indians whispered to one another in Aymara and put out their hands to touch the president. They threw confetti into his hair to celebrate the arrival of an honored guest.

"You see this grass, it is going to grow this high!" the president said as he reached to his waist. "Better grass means better cattle and better milk and better nutrition." The Indians nodded and pleaded for a tractor.

Seferina Quille, 60, a peasant woman who was wearing a purple hoop skirt and tall felt hat and carrying a blanket full of potatoes on her back, said she was thrilled by the visit. "I'm going to vote for the president," she said in Aymara, "because he builds roads and schools for us."