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Peru Could Take a Lesson in Democracy From Chile

South America: Elections highlight how one nation's institutions grow stronger while the other's erode.

May 26, 2000|ABRAHAM F. LOWENTHAL | Abraham F. Lowenthal, a professor of international relations at USC, is founding president of the Pacific Council on International Policy. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California in San Francisco

Peru and Chile both faced hard-fought presidential elections at the century's turn. Chile's was in December 1999 with a runoff in January 2000. Peru's was in April with a final round scheduled for Sunday, despite calls for postponing it.

In each country, two dominant candidates stood out from a more crowded field in the first round, each obtaining more than 40% of the votes but neither commanding an absolute majority. In neither country were the candidates' economic programs a major factor; all four called for free market capitalism with more attention to social problems. The electoral processes in Chile and Peru, however, have been remarkably different.

In Chile, the candidates represented well-established coalitions of strong political parties. The winner, Ricardo Lagos, is a Socialist who in the early 1970s worked with Salvador Allende, the Socialist president who was overthrown by a military coup in 1973. Over the years, Lagos has moved steadily toward the center, serving as a cabinet minister under two Christian Democratic presidents in the coalition governments that came to power after a plebiscite ended the 15-year rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had overthrown Allende.

Lagos campaigned as a centrist eager to build bridges among Chilean democrats of all persuasions. His opponent, Joaquin Lavin, former mayor of a fashionable Santiago suburb, once had been a vocal Pinochet supporter, but he carefully distanced himself from the aging former dictator and out-flanked Lagos by promising increased social spending and improved medical care and education and by espousing "change" as his bumper-sticker slogan.

The Chilean election was extremely close. Lavin had a decided edge in campaign funding and media presence, but no one questioned the fairness of the electoral procedures or the accuracy of the count when Lagos won. When the results were known, barely hours after the polls closed, Lavin warmly congratulated Lagos.

Peru's elections, though equally close, are at the other end of the spectrum. Incumbent President Alberto Fujimori concentrated on using government spending programs, control of the media and a variety of "dirty tricks" to overwhelm two previously strong opposition prospects, who wound up with less than 5% of the votes between them in the April election. He was surprised, however, by the meteoric rise of a previously insignificant candidate, Alejandro Toledo, who crystallized anti-Fujimori sentiment and captured 41% of the first-round votes, to Fujimori's 49.87%, according to the (suspect) final count.

At that time, exit polls showed Toledo leading, and quick-count procedures showed the candidates neck and neck. The official tally, which took several days, however, showed Fujimori's lead growing inexorably toward an absolute majority, stopping short of that result only in the face of strong international pressure against electoral fraud. Toledo rejected the validity of the first-round results and insisted on improved procedures for the May 28 final round. Citing national and international testimony that the electoral procedures remained flawed, Toledo has withdrawn from the race, while reserving his right to reenter if the election date is postponed and improved procedures are introduced, including fair access to the media and international observation. The top election body on Thursday rejected the 10-day postponement called for by the Organization of American States, which is monitoring the election.

Peru is polarized, with one side rejecting Fujimori as arbitrary and unaccountable, while the other denounces Toledo as an inexperienced and irresponsible demagogue.

Whereas Lagos and Lavin come from Chile's European elite, Fujimori and Toledo illustrate Peru's rejection of that elite. Fujimori, the Peruvian-born son of Japanese immigrants, defeated renowned novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in 1990 in part by campaigning as a nonwhite outside the discredited coastal white ruling class. Toledo, one of 16 siblings in a Quechua-speaking highland family, is the first Indian presidential candidate to get this far in Peru. Ironically, Fujimori campaigns in the colorful hats, vests and ponchos of the Indians, while Toledo sports white shirts and ties to evoke his leadership credentials and his educational and employment connections with Stanford, Harvard and the World Bank.

Most important, perhaps, neither Fujimori nor Toledo is associated with an established political party. They are both movement politicians, projecting a personal appeal unconstrained by organized interest groups or mediating institutions. But their support base is vulnerable because it lacks institutional or programmatic anchors.

The fundamental difference between Chile and Peru that is underlined by this year's elections has to do with institutions. Chile's robust political and civic institutions survived the Pinochet period and have helped build problem-solving capacities and a sense of national community. Peru's historically weak civic institutions have been further undermined and eroded by the Fujimori period of cynicism, manipulation and impunity.

Peru's presidential election is thus an important decision point. The question comes down to this: Is it more likely that an experienced autocrat will reform his ways in order to establish a positive legacy or that an inexperienced candidate who is campaigning to strengthen democratic governance can carry it off, if he achieves power in a country without institutional restraints on personal authority? This is not an easy choice.

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