Peru Bracing for Crisis in a War of Wills Between President, Rival Election:

Backers of Alejandro Toledo--who has demanded a delay in vote--stage street protests. Fujimori, however, refuses to reschedule poll

Los Angeles Times -- 20 May 2000

by Sebastian Rotella, Times Staff Writer

Natalia Tarnawiecki in Lima contributed to this report.

BUENOS AIRES -- Peru's troubled presidential campaign lurched toward another crisis Friday over challenger Alejandro Toledo's threat to withdraw his candidacy if the May 28 runoff election is not postponed.

The standoff between Toledo and two-term President Alberto Fujimori resembled a high-stakes chess game played on various fronts Friday.

On the streets, Toledo partisans in Lima, the capital, and other cities staged protests reminiscent of last month's nationwide marches denouncing alleged fraud in the first round of voting. This time, marchers demanding a postponement of the runoff clashed with police in advance of a pro-Fujimori rally in the city of Chimbote.

On the campaign trail, the president remained defiant, repeating his refusal to delay the vote. But his running mate called for a dialogue with both the Toledo camp and international election watchdogs, who also want the election delayed until June 18 because of lingering procedural problems.

And on the all-important diplomatic front, Toledo met with U.S. Ambassador John Hamilton, who last month sought to help defuse the crisis triggered by the slow counting of first-round ballots. In Washington, meanwhile, the State Department urged the two candidates to sit down with election observers and work out their differences.

Wary Peruvians braced for another war of wills between the president, whose authoritarian style pushed him into perhaps the climactic challenge of his 10-year rule, and Toledo, an economist and political neophyte of indigenous descent with a taste for campaign drama.

It seemed clear that Toledo wants to mobilize civic protest and international pressure as he did last month. After an agonizing three-day vote count in April, the government announced that Fujimori had been forced into a runoff--a decision seen as a capitulation by a leader who wanted to declare himself the outright winner.

Trying to clarify the rather confusing status of his presidential bid, Toledo reiterated Friday that he has not withdrawn his candidacy unconditionally but rather is demanding a three-week postponement based on the recommendations of election monitors.

"I continue as a candidate," said Toledo, who has taken flak during the campaign for making impetuous and sometimes contradictory statements. "I will remain in my candidacy and in the campaign until June 18, the date we have requested in order to have the necessary conditions for a legitimate process."

Toledo called on Peruvians to stay away from the polls if the government holds the election as scheduled on May 28. He said he would hold a protest rally that day and lead peaceful marches after that.

The Organization of American States, or OAS, has warned that it will not endorse the May 28 election because the government does not have time to overhaul vote-counting computers, train poll watchers and otherwise safeguard against fraud.

"What's most probable is that Fujimori wants to insist on an election on May 28," Peruvian political analyst Santiago Pedraglio said in a phone interview. "But it depends on how much international and internal pressure he gets. If it's intense, he may have to negotiate. It would be a very high cost to have a government that is considered illegitimate by half the nation and the international community."

It's not clear what will happen in the coming days. It apparently is too late for Toledo to withdraw his name from the ballot--that deadline passed weeks ago. A Fujimori victory May 28, therefore, could be technically legal while politically questionable.

There is concern here that the repercussions could include sanctions by the United States, whose Congress has made ominous statements to that effect in recent months.

The most extreme result could be a decision by the OAS not to recognize a new Fujimori government, analysts said.

Fujimori's vice presidential running mate, Francisco Tudela, told reporters that such reprisals would be groundless because Peru has taken steps to improve the electoral process. He called Friday for national unity and said the camps of the two candidates should renew a dialogue about ensuring a clean election.

But the president, a leader with strong military backing and a warlike approach to politics, may be willing to risk short-term heat from his citizens and neighbors. In a diplomatic confrontation with the international community, he would be strengthened by the fact that Peru remains one of the more stable nations in an increasingly troubled region.

Despite Peru's comparative order and sound economy, the systematic weakening of democratic institutions under Fujimori propelled the rise of Toledo, who appeals to Peru's impoverished indigenous majority. The most recent opinion polls showed them neck and neck.

But Toledo has consistently warned that he would not compete if the government did not correct anomalies and suspicious circumstances evident in the first round of voting, such as the fact that 1.3 million more votes were cast than there were registered voters. The OAS found widespread irregularities on election day and said the campaign was marred by unequal media access, dirty tricks against opposition candidates and the use of state resources on the president's behalf.

Toledo's latest gambit was based on another stinging critique issued by the OAS on Thursday. Foot-dragging by Peruvian election authorities not only meant that 520,000 poll watchers have less than two weeks to train, but it also prevented the adequate testing of a much-criticized computer system, the Latin American election watchdogs said.

Moreover, the government inexplicably substituted the software used for vote-counting during the first round and failed to notify the monitors until May 12, the report said. The OAS recommended the three-week postponement, citing the "turbulence and uncertainties of the first round" and declaring that trustworthy results were impossible.

Fujimori rejects what he calls international meddling in Peruvian affairs and says the law prohibits a change in the election calendar at this late date.

Political analyst Enrique Bernales disagreed, saying federal election authorities have considerable discretion.

"Nothing is that rigid," he said. "If there were a major storm, the elections could be postponed."