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Why Fujimori Is So Hard to Beat

May 21, 2000|Kimberly Theidon | Kimberly Theidon is a Hamburg fellow and Ponciano del Pino visiting scholar at the Center for Latin American Studies at Stanford University. She was an independent observer in Peru for the Center

STANFORD — Only days before Peruvians were scheduled to vote in the second round of presidential balloting, the opposition candidate, Alejandro Toledo, declared that he will not participate because there is no guarantee that the elections will be free and fair. "We will not be lead to the slaughterhouse once again," Toledo said Thursday. His sentiment captured the national and international outrage provoked by the electoral dirty war being waged by Peru's president.

When thousands of Peruvians took to the streets to protest the systematic fraud in the first round of presidential elections, they were also crying out against the corruption that has been a central component of President Alberto Fujimori's authoritarian methods. While international observers focused on "irregularities" that impeded free and fair democratic elections on April 9, such irregularities have been the rule rather than the exception during Fujimori's decade in power. Recent events indicate that the clash between authoritarian practices and popular will has only just begun.

When Fujimori was elected in 1990, he campaigned on a platform to end hyperinflation and defeat two guerrilla movements that had conducted an internal war throughout the 1980s. In fulfilling his promises, Fujimori used Draconian measures, staging a self-coup that shut down a recalcitrant Congress, rewrote the constitution and dismantled political parties and other institutional intermediaries in the development of his self-described "direct democracy."

Popularity and personalist politics enabled Fujimori to handily win reelection in 1995. But his authoritarian impulses increased during his second term. To remain in power, he removed members of the Constitutional Tribunal who had blocked his illegal run for a third term in 1997 and reinterpreted the constitution to allow for the perpetuation of his presidency.

This was the backdrop for the more than 1,000 grave irregularities detected both before and on the day of the April 9 primary elections. Among the illegalities were the use of public funds for campaign purposes, manipulation of public-service employees and control of the mass media.

The Fujimori administration has resorted to more direct forms of pressuring voters. As part of our observation of electoral practices, we visited various cities and rural communities. The use of threats was universal. Representatives of Peru 2000, Fujimori's political movement, planted the idea that if Fujimori didn't win, all forms of support would cease. In a country in which 42% of the population and 70% of the rural population receive some form of social support from the government to satisfy basic needs, the threat to eliminate these programs was directed at the very survival of poor households.

The threats to economic livelihood were paired with ones against personal security. In Peru, 30,000 people have died in fighting between the terrorist group Shining Path, the Peruvian armed forces and the peasant patrols. Sowing rumors that opposition parties will release imprisoned guerrillas, confiscate arms from peasant-based civil-defense patrols and withdraw military bases from rural regions naturally trigger tremendous fear. As many peasants told us, "If Fujimori doesn't win, they say the terrorists will come back here and slit all of our throats."

The state's terrorism even followed people to the voting booth. Many peasants told us that representatives of Peru 2000 told them that there were hidden cameras in the polling places that would take a photo of each person not voting for Fujimori so the government could punish them by taking away their aid. This was coupled with rumors that the computers used to tabulate votes can also identify voters by their identification number and track them down if they voted for the opposition. In a stunning twist, the threat that the "party has a 1,000 eyes and ears" no longer refers to the terrorists of Shining Path, but to the government itself.

The manipulation of fear is central to Fujimori's authoritarian project, and draws upon the recent horrific past of his country. In Fujimori's self-construction as Peru's savior, he presents himself as the guardian of order preventing the country from sliding backward into an endless abyss. This juxtaposition of order and chaos, and of peace and violence, has been a key campaign theme and is used to delegitimize his opposition and its supporters.

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