Watchdog group may condemn Peru election

Miami Herald -- 25 March 2000

by Andres Oppenheimer

The head of a 70-member Organization of American States observer mission to Peru warned Friday that the group may condemn the country's April 9 election unless the government allows fair access to the media by opposition candidates and investigates serious irregularities in voter registrations.

In a telephone interview before his scheduled return to Peru today, OAS mission chief Eduardo Stein told The Herald that the observer group remains deeply worried over conditions surrounding the election, in which President Alberto Fujimori -- in power since 1990 -- is making a bid for a third five-year term.

``If conditions don't change over the next two weeks, the [OAS] mission could disqualify the process,'' said Stein, a former Guatemalan foreign minister. ``It's a possibility that we have not ruled out.''


While an OAS mission's condemnation of the election would have no legal effect, it would raise serious questions about Fujimori's legitimacy in the international community. Many multinational institutions and the U.S. government are increasingly reluctant to lend money or political support to authoritarian regimes.

Fujimori is leading in the polls with 43 percent of the vote, followed by economist Alejandro Toledo with 32 percent, in what opposition politicians and U.S. observer groups like the National Democratic Institute and the Carter Center have described as a seriously flawed election process.

Stein said access to the media by opposition candidates has improved slightly in recent days but remains restricted.

``There are a series of small and big impediments, which together result in a picture in which Peruvian voters will not have had the proper access to a pluralistic debate,'' Stein said.


In a statement earlier this week, Santiago Canton, the OAS special rapporteur for freedom of expression, criticized ``the systematic use of intelligence services and security forces as instruments of harassment and persecution of investigative journalists and political opposition leaders.''

Canton reported cases of police surveillance and smear campaigns against journalists, and concluded that ``Peru lacks the necessary conditions to guarantee the complete exercise of the right to express political ideas that oppose or criticize the government through the mass media.''

Stein said that ``a positive signal [from the government] would be to allow open debates so that the people have access to several contrasting points of view.''

The OAS mission chief also called for the government to investigate allegations that at least one senior electoral official participated in the reported forging of one million signatures that Fujimori needed to qualify to run for a third term.


``There must be clear signals that there is an investigation into charges that this person may have organized the process of massive forging of signatures,'' he said.

Stein rejected private suggestions by some U.S. and Latin American diplomats that the OAS mission, largely sponsored by the U.S. and Japanese governments, withdraw before April 9.

``While there are [opposition] candidates who are competing, the OAS mission cannot withdraw,'' Stein said.

The Fujimori government invited the OAS mission to observe the election process after strong complaints by opposition leaders that the process was being manipulated by an authoritarian regime.

On Friday, a new mission to Peru by the National Democratic Institute and the Carter Center concluded that ``the conditions for a fair electoral campaign in Peru have not yet been established.''

Fujimori, meanwhile, said he is making his ``best efforts'' to ensure that the elections are fair.