Peru Leader Battles for Third Term
CARABAYLLO, Peru (AP) _ President Alberto Fujimori, the iron-fisted leader who crushed Maoist rebels and tamed runaway inflation, is on stage with scantily clad show girls, trying to swing his hips to music and shooting caustic barbs at critics of his re-election drive.
With an opponent mounting an unexpectedly strong challenge over the failure of the government’s free-market economic policies to generate jobs, Fujimori has finally taken to the campaign trail in the last days of Peru’s presidential race.
``I’ve received attacks of all kinds but they haven’t hurt me because I represent the Peruvian people. And the Peruvian people are sovereign. No one is going to mess with us,″ he shouts defiantly into a microphone.
Fujimori is seeking an unprecedented third five-year term in Sunday’s elections amid growing charges from international election monitors of political sabotage and government-financed harassment of opposition candidates.
Until two weeks ago the 61-year-old president, the son of poor Japanese immigrants, had not even bothered to campaign, secure in the knowledge that he held a wide lead over a pack of eight opponents seeking to dethrone him.
But one of his foes, Alejandro Toledo, a one-time shoeshine boy who broke out of poverty to earn a doctorate in economics from Stanford University, has come close to Fujimori in the final days of the race.
His growing support could force the president into a runoff if Fujimori does not win an absolute majority in the first round.
That threat has brought Fujimori to a dusty plaza in this shantytown on the northern edge of Lima, where he is lambasting Toledo as a free-spending populist who will plunge Peru back into the economic chaos of the 1980s.
``It’s easy to be a candidate. All you have to do is make promises. The hard part is keeping the promises,″ he tells some 5,000 poor women who run government-supported soup kitchens and who have been bused in from all over Lima to hear him.
But his listeners appear listless, the magic that once connected Fujimori to Peru’s poor masses gone. Fujimori is awkward in his attempts to dance to the tropical rhythms. His jokes fall flat.
And the day ends badly when the buses used to bring in the women leave before the rally ends, stranding many of them miles from home without money for bus or cab fare.
The next day the opposition paper La Republica ran a headline that said: ``Who is that arthritic person dancing on stage?″
``The spectacle of Alberto Fujimori campaigning is putting the finishing touches to the destruction of his image as an Olympian figure,″ commented political analyst Mirko Lauer. ``Why does he do it? Because he has no choice. He has sniffed a serious danger in the air and is trying to neutralize it.″
Fujimori’s Achilles heel is the inability of his free-market economic policies to create jobs in a country where only one in two in the labor force has steady work. Toledo has hit hard on that, pledging to create 400,000 jobs. He says he’ll do it by cutting taxes to spur business investment.
Fujimori’s campaign is worried about people like Norma Terrones Pereyra, a 46-year-old mother of three who was buying vegetables at a public market in Comas, a working-class district, the day after his rally.
``It’s time for a change. I voted for Fujimori in 1990 and 1995. This time I’m not going to vote for El Chino,″ she said, using Fujimori’s nickname, which means ``the Chinaman″ and refers to his Asian features. ``I’m going to vote for Toledo. He is a man who is prepared to resolve the country’s problems, like the lack of jobs, which Fujimori was unable to do in 10 years.″
But many analysts say Fujimori is still the man to beat.
Fernando Rospigliosi, a political scientist, says Fujimori’s foes are fooling themselves if they think that Toledo’s surge means he has a chance of repeating Fujimori’s stunning upset of famed novelist Mario Vargas Llosa a decade ago.
``Those who think that way forget something fundamental and decisive. The 1990 elections were the last ones that were free, clean and competitive in Peru. Today’s are not,″ he said.
Foreign election monitors have sharply criticized the government for using its food donation programs to pressure impoverished shantytown dwellers, and especially people in isolated rural communities, into voting for Fujimori. They say worse violations occur in villages where army troops are stationed.
``We have seen it in Ayacucho, where we have been told that the armed forces show the computers to the campesinos and tell them: ’We have the lists of voters and their names and we will know from your finger prints how you voted. We will say you are terrorist sympathizers if you don’t vote for President Fujimori,‴ said Bianca Jagger, head of a European election monitoring organization.
The campesinos, or countryfolk, many of them Quechua-speaking highland Indians who are illiterate, are terrified by such a threat in a country where the armed forces were accused of murdering thousands of suspected rebel sympathizers during the 1980s and early 1990s, the election monitors say.
Hernando de Soto, a free-market ideologue who worked closely with Fujimori in his first term, says he cannot foresee Fujimori and his powerful security chief Vladimiro Montesinos, the architect of his re-election drive, allowing any opposition candidate to win.
``These guys really enjoy power. They’ve become accustomed to it and they will do their utmost to stay in power, by hook or by crook if necessary. I don’t think they’re prepared to bow out gracefully.″