Peru Opposition Wins Congress, Blow to Fujimori

Reuters -- 16 November 2000

by Alistair Scrutton

LIMA - Peru's opposition took over the powerful presidency of Congress for the first time in eight years on Thursday, further eroding embattled President Alberto Fujimori's grip on power and opening the way for possible moves to oust him.

As expected, moderate congressman Valentin Paniagua was elected president of Congress, constitutionally the fourth most powerful post in Peru after Fujimori and his two vice presidents, beating a government rival by a comfortable 13 vote margin.

Cheers erupted in the chamber, opposition legislators rushed over to congratulate Paniagua and supporters chanted ''It's going to fall, it's going to fall, the dictatorship is going to fall'' as the result of the ballot was read out.

``This is an enormous responsibility. The time has come to change Congress,'' a beaming Paniagua told RPP radio.

``A new era is possible. Behind the passions that are now stirring parts of the country, there is an urgent demand for justice, truth and union,'' the respected lawyer said.

It was the first time the opposition had headed the legislature since Fujimori closed a divided Congress in 1992 and awarded himself near dictatorial powers in a ``self-coup.''

That allowed him to clamp an iron grip on the legislature when it reopened packed with his supporters, something that had eluded him for the first two years of his rule from 1990-92. His sway over the legislature had then remained intact until political crisis erupted in September.

On Thursday, The government showed more signs of disarray as the president stayed in Asia on trade trips, despite hails of criticism at his absence.

Adding to the uncertainty, Vice President Ricardo Marquez said the government would replace Prime Minister Federico Salas in December along with several other ministers who may want to leave their posts to run in elections on April 8.

Peru has been embroiled in political crisis since Fujimori announced two months ago that he would call elections four years early after a bribery scandal erupted over his ex-spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos, now in hiding and charged with money laundering and a host of human rights abuses.

Fujimori has said he will not run in the elections and will quit in July.


But two cabinet ministers and main opposition leader Alejandro Toledo have said the odds are shortening on Fujimori staying in office until then.

While Fujimori's alliance held the presidency of Congress, the possibilities of toppling him were remote. But some in the opposition now say they want to begin moves in Congress to oust him on the grounds of moral unfitness.

Paniagua -- who replaces staunch Fujimori ally Martha Hildebrand, ousted in an opposition-led censure vote on Monday -- denied his aim was to remove Fujimori.

``That is not the case, I am a moderate,'' he said.

But Luis Chang Ching, a member of Fujimori's alliance, acknowledged the risks were real. ``This danger exists, I hope it doesn't happen,'' he told local CPN radio.

Political analysts said even if the opposition did not immediately try to oust Fujimori, the presidency of Congress would give them the means to push him out of office if Peru's political turmoil took a turn for the worse.

With imminent changes in the cabinet, there appeared no respite to the crisis, which was aggravated even further when the government felt obliged to deny reports that Fujimori was seeking political asylum in Malaysia.

The president left an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation on Thursday to make an unexpected trip to Tokyo before attending an Ibero-American summit in Panama.

But it was unclear when Fujimori would return to Peru.

Peru's political turmoil has been centered on Montesinos, who fled to Panama after the scandal broke in September but defied Fujimori three weeks ago by returning to Peru and sparking a major manhunt led personally by the president.

The ex-spy chief is now wanted on a host of charges from money laundering to ordering torture and murder after some $58 million was found in overseas bank accounts linked to him.