Fujimori's Power in Peru Shaky

Associated Press -- 16 November 2000

by Monte Hayes

LIMA, Peru - The shakiness of President Alberto Fujimori's grip on power in Peru was on display Thursday, as he faced a fight for control of Congress and his aides tried to dispel rumors that he was seeking political asylum in Asia.

Fujimori was in Brunei for a Pacific Rim trade summit when the rumors began to swirl: Jose Barba Caballero, a leader of a small opposition party, alleged that Fujimori had left Peru for Miami with 20 to 30 crates of personal belongings before proceeding to Brunei. He said Fujimori was planning to seek political asylum in Malaysia after the summit.

Fujimori aides denied the rumor, but there was confusion as to where the president was headed next. Agriculture Minister Jose Chlimper said Fujimori planned to fly home early to end the political turmoil. The president's press office said he was stopping in Japan to seek a loan, while other administration officials just said he would leave Brunei as scheduled.

Despite the denials, the readiness of Peruvians to believe the unconfirmed asylum report underscored how tenuous Fujimori's grasp on power has become.

``At this point his power is hanging by a thread. He is very weak. The latest polls bear that out,'' said political analyst Santiago Pedraglio.

In September, after a corruption scandal erupted around his former spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori announced that he would step down next July following new elections. But pressure is building for Fujimori to quit sooner as apparent evidence of Montesinos' misdeeds mount.

The scandal surrounding Montesinos, who remains a fugitive, began with a leaked video showing him apparently bribing an opposition congressman.

Montesinos is now under investigation for laundering at least $58 million in foreign bank accounts. He faces criminal complaints in Peru ranging from directing state-sponsored death squads to skimming profits from the narcotics trade during his 10 years as Fujimori's top aide.

Fujimori has said he had no inkling of any illegal activities by Montesinos.

Few Peruvians believe him: A public opinion survey last week by the Datum polling agency showed that two-thirds think Fujimori knew of Montesinos' foreign bank accounts.

``As far as I am concerned, Fujimori is the leader of this mafia that is trying to hang onto power,'' said Cesar Arguelles, 48, an electrician. ``He should be the first one to be investigated.''

Fujimori has failed to distance himself from Montesinos even in the eyes of close associates.

Hernando de Soto, an international economist who worked closely with Fujimori in the early 1990s, said he wants to think the president didn't know what was going on. But he warned that Fujimori's fate is tied to Montesinos.

``That is the problem with associating with gangsters,'' he said.

As more and more Peruvians turn against Fujimori, an increasing number of analysts doubt he can hold onto power until July.

``The next 30 days are going to be tough for Fujimori. I don't think he can reach Jan. 1,'' said Manuel Torrado, director of Datum.

A key test was set for later Thursday, when opposition lawmakers seek to take control of Congress - a step that would further undermine the president's fading hold on power.

Opposition Congressman Valentin Paniagua will face Fujimori loyalist Ricardo Marcenaro in a vote to replace Martha Hildebrandt, a staunch Fujimori ally who was removed as Congress president Monday. If the opposition gains control of Congress, it will be the first time since 1992 that Fujimori does not dominate the body.