Peru Under U.S. Fire Over Sunday Vote

Reuters -- 26 May 2000

LIMA (Reuters) - Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, already facing an opposition boycott of Sunday's vote, came under U.S. fire on Friday after his government pushed aside repeated calls to delay an election monitors have deemed unfair. In Washington, President Clinton warned relations between Peru and the United States could be affected if Peru sticks to Sunday's election date despite an assessment that the vote would be ``far from free and fair'' by an Organization of American States (OAS) observer mission.

While most of the Andean country returned to a normal calm after violent protests Thursday, local radio reported police fired tear gas to disperse dozens of demonstrators in the Amazon jungle town of Iquitos calling Fujimori ``a dictator.''

Public demonstrations are prohibited until after Sunday's vote and the armed forces, in a signal they stand behind Fujimori, said Friday they would oversee a peaceful vote.

The relative calm contrasts with Thursday when thousands of protesters held running battles with police, throwing stones and starting fires near the Government Palace in Lima.

Fujimori is running for a third five-year term in Sunday's runoff while his rival Alejandro Toledo, who ran second to the president in April's first round, is calling for a boycott.

``Free, fair and open elections are the foundation of a democratic society. Without them, our relationship with Peru inevitably will be affected,'' Clinton said in a statement.

Peru has been a major ally in U.S. efforts to stamp out drug trafficking in South America and the United States is Peru's most important trade partner. Fujimori attempted to distance himself from election authorities' decision to maintain the date. ``I would have helped, I would have participated in that ... new date without any inconveniences,'' he told Reuters Television, commenting on proposals to delay the vote.

But political commentators at home lambasted Fujimori for heading to a one-horse race that, helped by unfair conditions like a biased media and state food handouts, he is almost sure to win.

Fujimori only needs one third of the electorate to cast valid votes for the result to be constitutionally legitimate. Pollsters say Fujimori should get enough votes to make the election legally valid.

``Now we near a stage of dangerous confrontation,'' said political analyst Jaime de Althaus in El Comercio, Peru's leading newspaper.

``The new Fujimori government born of this imposed election will lack value and be intrinsically weak despite its show of open and clandestine force.'' Miguel Palomino, Merrill Lynch's senior analyst for Peru, said the instability could also ward off much-needed investment. ``Private investment is always negatively affected by this kind of political uncertainty,'' he said.

Fujimori Master Of Crisis

But Fujimori, the 61-year-old son of Japanese immigrants, has sailed through turbulent waters before in his 10 years in office. He has beat leftist guerrillas and economic instability. In 1992, he shut down Congress and the courts in a ``self-coup'' which helped consolidate his power over the Andean country of 25 million people. Congress and the courts have since reopened but are criticized for being under government control. Toledo, whose mix of free-market talk tinged with populist promises has helped consolidate an anti-Fujimori vote, is urging his followers to not vote on Sunday or spoil their ballots by scribbling ``No to fraud.'' Voting is mandatory in Peru and punishable with a fine in a country where almost half the population lacks access to basic needs, according to official figures.

Toledo, 54, promises to continue campaigning until clean elections are held. ``We still have a long road ahead,'' he bellowed to thousands of supporters in a rally Thursday.

Toledo's call for a delay in the vote has been echoed by the United States and international monitors including the OAS and the U.S.-based Carter Center. Peru's National Election Board, the country's top election body which is largely regarded as under Fujimori's control, voted on Thursday to hold elections on May 28 as planned.

In a response which further threatens the vote's international credibility, the OAS mission has said it will not perform ground monitoring nor carry out an independent vote count, a procedure intended to allay fears of fraud by verifying the official government count.

``According to international standards, Peru's election process is far from being considered free and fair,'' the OAS mission said in one of its strongest statements yet.