Peru's Tilted Election Landscape

The New York Times Editorial -- 24 May 2000

If Peru's presidential runoff election is held on Sunday as scheduled, it will have only one candidate -- a throwback to nastier times in Latin America. Alejandro Toledo, the business school professor who is mounting a strong challenge to President Alberto Fujimori, has said he will drop out of Sunday's vote because the government has not done enough to assure that the election will be fair.

Although election boycotts can be the last refuge of losers, in this case Mr. Toledo is right. A leading domestic election observer group refuses to monitor this month's vote, citing numerous flaws. The Organization of American States has also announced that a fair vote is impossible, and has asked Mr. Fujimori to postpone the runoff until the many problems that marred the first round of voting can be fixed. Mr. Toledo says he would then participate. If Mr. Fujimori goes ahead with elections this Sunday, he will lose legitimacy and rob Peruvians of the democracy they demand.

Peruvian and international election observers found numerous flaws in the first round of elections, on April 9. Under pressure from those observers, and governments such as the United States and Japan, Mr. Fujimori has permitted a fairer campaign environment for the runoff. He no longer has a monopoly on broadcast coverage, for example, although the media are still biased in his favor. But he has delayed making crucial changes in an electoral system that lent itself to dirty tricks. Among other problems, ballots were found pre-marked for Mr. Fujimori's party, observers were unable to verify that totals had been entered into the computer accurately, and the count took a suspicious three days to complete.

Mr. Fujimori has repeatedly gotten away with trampling on democracy. In 1992 he shut down Congress and assumed sweeping powers. Back then, however, Peruvians were grateful for his victories over hyperinflation and the murderous Shining Path guerrilla organization, and he had majority support. Today his manipulations to win a third term -- he ignored the term limits in the Constitution and sacked judges who ruled his move illegal -- disturb many Peruvians. Pro-democracy protests have been widespread.

Foreign governments must be as resolute. The O.A.S. observer mission has been serious and constructive, and deserves the full backing of its member states. Mr. Fujimori knows that he faces a domestic political crisis if he goes ahead with an unfair vote. He needs a clear message that anything short of a fair election will make him an international pariah as well.