Democracy, South American-style

Only four months ago, Peru elected Alberto K. Fujimori to an unprecedented third presidential term in a runoff election boycotted by the opposition candidate and dismissed as faulty by the international community. On Saturday, he surprised his country and the world by announcing that he was calling for new elections — and signalled that he would not be running himself. The emotionally delivered decision brought joy and elation to many Peruvians who have been protesting May’s fraudulent elections. But whether genuine democracy returns to Peru with new elections depends more on Fujimori’s other announcement last week to deactivate the increasingly corrupt National Intelligence Agency.
Critics of the government’s ever-increasing authoritarian rule found support for their attacks last Thursday when Peru’s intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, was shown in a videotape bribing an opposition lawmaker with $15,000 to join Fujimori’s congressional allies. The subsequent scandal led the president to try to fire the powerful intelligence agency head, whose considerable sway with Peru’s military helped Fujimori consolidate his power during his 10 years as president.
Indeed, despite a constitution that originally allowed a president only two terms in office, Fujimori’s powerful influence led Congress in 1996 to approve a reinterpretation of 1993 constitutional reforms, allowing the largely autocratic leader to run for a third term. After promising to crack down on terrorism and increase the country’s fledgling democracy in 1990, Fujimori flagrantly abused his position by disbanding the Supreme Court and the Congress in 1992.
Reports earlier this week — amid widespread worries that the army would retaliate against the president’s bold move — indicated that Montesinos is being held by the military in the National Intelligence Agency’s headquarters. His influence with the military, which had ruled Peru between 1968 and 1980, will likely hinder any real change from the country’s present undemocratic state. Even as protestors have flooded the streets in recent days, rejoicing over Fujimori’s decision to step down and wishing he would leave office immediately, the Peruvian potentate hinted to reporters outside his palace Tuesday that he might run for a fourth term after his successor’s five years end in 2006.
Fujimori must respect the growing dissent among his people and call elections as soon as possible. His popularity — which was already dismal when he was re-elected in May by only 51 percent of the vote, despite the opposition candidate’s decision to drop out amid allegations that the run-off election would be flawed — has decreased tremendously since the incriminating videotape emerged.