Peru Presidential Race Turns Tough

The Associated Press -- 28 November 1999

by Monte Hayes, AP Writer

LIMA, Peru (AP) - The race to unseat Peru's iron-fisted president, Alberto Fujimori, in next April's elections is turning into a bruising gantlet for opposition candidates.

When Mayor Alberto Andrade appeared recently in downtown Lima at a public ceremony, he was met by a hail of stones from protesters and had to make a hasty retreat, shielded by aides, while police watched impassively.

When Luis Castaneda, former head of the Social Security Institute, arrived in the highland city of Caraz for a nighttime address, police barricades blocked his caravan's access to the main plaza.

And when he began to speak, the power was cut to his sound system and a police band appeared in the plaza, blaring marching music that drowned out his words.

"Campaigning has become an endurance test in the face of an omnipresent police state," said political analyst Mirko Lauer. "Since it's not able to assemble a majority, the government has dedicated itself to demolishing its electoral rivals."

A growing number of critics, both inside and outside Peru, accuse Fujimori and his allies in military intelligence of a systematic, illegal campaign financed by public funds to discredit and intimidate leading opposition candidates.

This month, the U.S. Senate added its voice to those expressing growing concern. A unanimous, bipartisan resolution condemned Fujimori for manipulating the judiciary and electoral authorities and intimidating the news media in a bid to stay in power.

Fujimori's foes say the National Intelligence Service, under the command of Vladimiro Montesinos, is behind what they describe as the dirtiest campaign in modern Peruvian history.

They accuse the intelligence service of financing violent protests against adversaries and smear attacks in a half dozen sensationalist tabloids, while at the same time pressuring television stations to deny access to opposition views.

"This is not good for democracy," said Castaneda, 52, who has climbed into second place in the polls behind Fujimori. "It stains the electoral process."

Fujimori has denied his government is behind any dirty tricks campaign, and his allies have poured scorn on his opponents for complaining.

Romulo Munoz, a member of the Fujimori-dominated electoral board, called Andrade and Castaneda "cry babies." Ricardo Marcenaro, vice president of the Fujimori-controlled Congress, said Andrade "should stop playing the victim."

Fujimori has not confirmed his candidacy, but he is widely expected to run.

His supporters in Congress have circumvented a constitutional ban on a third consecutive term with a controversial law, and his opponents say his frequent travels to poor areas of the country to distribute food and other aid show that he plans a re-election bid.

He says he will announce his decision at the end of the year.

Fujimori, 61, was first elected in 1990 and was re-elected in 1995. For years he maintained high popularity because of his crackdown on leftist rebels and his success in ending the economic chaos of the 1980s.

Despite a deep two-year recession and high unemployment, Fujimori has surged into first place in recent weeks in polls after trailing as far back as third.

Andrade, 55, popular for his success in getting thousands of sidewalk vendors off the streets and beautifying Lima's colonial downtown, had a two-to-one margin over Fujimori as recently as six months ago.

But that margin has been reversed, and Andrade has fallen into third place after attacks in the tabloids and difficulties in campaigning in the interior because of violent protests against his rallies.

During a recent meeting with foreign correspondents, Andrade displayed copies of the tabloids, which carried similar headlines referring to the corpulent mayor as "Fatso" and "Porky" and accusing him of corruption. A typical headline in "El Tio" alleged he had stolen "even the bathroom plumbing in City Hall."

"The strategy of this garbage press is based on the Nazi concept - lie, lie, something will stick," he said. "We're not playing the victim. We ARE the victim of permanent government harassment."

Several weeks ago, high-level editors resigned from two of the tabloids, "El Chato" and "El Tio," alleging that the owners had received handsome sums from the government over the past 10 months to print banner headlines trashing Andrade and Castaneda. They said the papers were told what headlines to print.

Giovanna Penaflor, director of Imasen, which conducts public opinion studies, says many impoverished Peruvians don't buy the papers, but they read the front-page headlines of tabloids on sale at kiosks.

"If the same headline appears in two or three papers, the repetition of the headline generates a sense of credibility in people," she said.

At the same time, television stations have virtually closed their doors to Andrade and Castaneda.

A study by Transparencia, a private citizen's group working for clean elections, revealed that in October, Fujimori appeared 78 percent of the time, Andrade 11 percent and Castaneda 5 percent in news reports.

The virtual boycott has even extended to paid advertising. In mid-November, three major stations rejected paid ads by Andrade announcing his formal candidacy for the presidency.

"Where is our right and freedom of expression when we can't even express ourselves by paying," Andrade complained.