Challenger Predicts Fraud and Drops From Peru Race

New York Times -- 19 May 2000

by Clifford Krauss

LIMA, Peru -- The outspoken challenger in Peru's presidential race said today that he was pulling out of the runoff election scheduled for later this month because he believed the vote would be a fraud.

The challenger, Alejandro Toledo, asked President Alberto K. Fujimori to delay the vote to mid-June, so international election monitors could test computer systems to ensure a clean vote. Even then, Mr. Toledo did not promise to participate unless he received equal time on the main television stations.

But President Fujimori rejected such an idea before Mr. Toledo made the request. For several days, Mr. Toledo had threatened to back out of the race, and earlier today, Mr. Fujimori told campaign audiences that he would not change the election day.

Mr. Toledo's withdrawal leaves Mr. Fujimori open to win a third five-year term in voting on May 28. But it could prove to be a Pyrrhic victory, capping a campaign tainted by international observers' complaints of dirty tricks and vote tampering in the first round, on April 9. In that vote, the president fell just shy of an absolute majority, forcing a runoff with Mr. Toledo.

Should Mr. Toledo and Mr. Fujimori hold firm, the Clinton administration and the Organization of American States would be put in the difficult position of having to validate an uncontested re-election victory or reject it because of irregularities. A decision to reject the election could lead the United States Congress and the Organization of American States to apply economic and political sanctions to Peru, which would be damaging not only to the country's weak economy but to its alliance with Washington in the fight against cocaine trafficking.

"I hope President Fujimori will not push the country over the cliff," Mr. Toledo said at a brief news conference this evening. "We are firm. We will not participate in a fraudulent election process like the one of the first round."

Over the last several days, Mr. Fujimori has publicly pledged that he would not change the election date no matter what Mr. Toledo or the Organization of American States observation team said.

"There are some who say we should postpone the elections," Mr. Fujimori said at a rally in the city of Chiclayo on Wednesday night, "but we just won't do it." He ridiculed Mr. Toledo, saying the challenger was trying to destabilize the country by traveling to Washington and Buenos Aires in recent weeks to complain that the election process had been so corrupted that it was probably impossible for him to win.

Tonight, the National Elections Commission, the final authority on elections, announced that it would not change the election date.

Upon hearing the news, at a rally tonight in Lima, Mr. Toledo said: "The dictatorship has taken the cruel decision of staying in power. We will not allow five more years." He then called on university students to take to the streets in peaceful demonstrations.

Mr. Toledo's words became increasing inflammatory as the night wore on. "The voice of democracy will not be put down by tanks," he said. "I am a Peruvian, an Indian rebel, and I will never abandon my people."

[At a campaign rally yesterday in Ayacucho, 230 miles southeast of Lima, protesters yelling, "Get out, tyrant!" stoned Mr. Fujimori's pickup truck, cracking the windshield, The Associated Press reported.]

In the April voting, ballots were counted over three days amid calls by the Clinton administration and the Organization of American States that a second round was necessary to ensure a fair result.

Mr. Toledo, a 54-year-old, American-educated business professor, has been threatening to drop out of the race ever since he came in second in that vote. Today he cited a new report by the Organization of American States observation team calling for a delay in the election, and said he was only following the recommendations of a nonpartisan body invited by the Fujimori government.

In the report released today, the organization's team sharply criticized the election authorities for choosing a new computer software program for the May vote without consulting foreign or Peruvian opposition monitors.

Organization of American States monitors said there had been tampering with ballots in the first round, but most important, it said that the disappearance of ballots and tally sheets for hours at a time when votes were supposedly being counted made it impossible to verify the results.

"This second round of the presidential election has to choose a winner with a clear and transparent result," the report concluded. "But confidence continues to be lacking, and the calendar conspires against recuperating that confidence."

Referring to the new computer software, the report continued: "When did they initiate the development of this new application, and why did the National Office of Election Process not share this information?" It added that "the election calendar makes it impossible to do a complete test" of the new software to ensure that it would give the opposition access to the final count as the votes are being counted.

At another news conference, officials at the National Office of Election Process disputed the Organization of American States report. They said they needed to change the computer program because, unlike the first round of voting, the May 28 ballot would not include congressional races. They also said that all of the software was being properly shared with the opposition.

Aides to Mr. Toledo said they concluded that they needed to take drastic action to prevent fraud after they completed their own study that showed that in scores of remote voting sites, Mr. Fujimori had inexplicably high vote counts last month.

For example, in some vote tables, Mr. Toledo received no votes. In polling places outside Lima where there were no independent observers, Mr. Fujimori received a strong 57.8 percent of the vote, more than 8 percentage points higher than his national total, according to the official count.

Mr. Toledo's aides again demanded today that the local poll-watchers in April, who were chosen by lottery, be replaced by new monitors in the second round. But Mr. Fujimori's allies in Congress have refused to change a law that requires that the same poll-watchers who worked in the first round be used in the second.

In an interview Wednesday, Mr. Fujimori denied that there would be any fraud or problems in the May 28 vote. "At this moment there are no more irregularities," he said.

Under Peruvian law, the runoff must be held within 30 days of the publication of the final results of the first round. The election board announced the outcome of the presidential vote on April 12 -- three days after the vote.

But the counting in other races has dragged on for weeks, especially for congressional races, so the opposition has proposed that a final round of voting could be held 30 days from today, on June 18.

Mr. Toledo said that even if the vote were postponed, he might not re-enter the race.

"The dirty war against my candidacy must end," he said, referring to a campaign by several newspapers and television stations of either not covering his campaign or filling their coverage with reports about his marriage and claims that he has a daughter outside of marriage and a drinking problem.

On Wednesday night, Mr. Toledo's advisers had decided to give Mr. Fujimori a 48-hour deadline to comply with their candidate's demands. But during the news conference today, Mr. Toledo issued no ultimatum and simply said he would pull out of the May 28 vote.