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Commentary

Peru--Now There's a Real Crisis of the Presidency

November 22, 2000|ABRAHAM F. LOWENTHAL | Abraham F. Lowenthal, a professor of international relations at USC, is the founding president of the Pacific Council on International Policy, an independent leadership forum

Two sharply contrasting dramas are playing themselves out this week, one in Peru and one in Florida.

In Peru, leaders are assembling an interim government in the wake of the resignations of President Alberto Fujimori and two of his vice presidents. But Peru has no tradition of strong political parties to organize the permanent succession. No one is sure how the armed forces will act. And lurking in the shadows is the powerful former head of military intelligence, Vladimiro Montesinos, who is in hiding. Rumors abound of massive corruption, tens of millions of dollars in secret bank accounts and international arms trafficking and drug syndicates. What a sad and sinister end to the Fujimori era.

Meanwhile, in Florida, the impasse over the American presidency continues, sparking endless punditry about mounting public dissatisfaction and concerns about a possible constitutional crisis.

Let's compare the two countries, both of which are in search of a president:

First, what is uncertain in Florida and in the United States is only whether the next president will be one man or another, not whether he will be a pawn of the military, or whether our constitutional and institutional systems will be able to constrain his exercise of power, or how long his term will be. In Peru, none of these pillars of stability are in place.

Second, the complex legal and political process unfolding in Florida is fully transparent. The Florida Supreme Court hearing was televised; the ballot recounts are being monitored by observers from both parties as well as media representatives; relevant actors in the melodrama are being interviewed and re-interviewed by competing media outlets; the next procedural steps are known and scheduled; and the locus of decision-making changes are explained to the electorate.

Compare this to Peru, where the main protagonists are unavailable for comment; where the process of decision-making is utterly opaque and where the succession procedures are improvised. What happens next depends more on decisions by individual participants than on any laws, procedures or institutions.

Third, although voters in the U.S. are almost evenly divided in their choice of president, more than 80% are prepared--even now, at the very height of the controversy and acrimony about the recount process--to accept either candidate as the legitimate president after he is declared the winner and inaugurated. Americans want a president to be chosen fairly, and they are willing to accept any outcome that results from the lawful process of legitimate institutions.

It is true that our two presidential candidates are bland men of the political party system who are not out to rock the boat. And it is understandable that some people here are so frustrated by our unimaginative politicians and our undisciplined political parties that they want to turn to someone outside conventional politics and the party system.

But we can take a lesson from Peru, where no one truly has a claim on the presidency that is widely accepted as legitimate and where there is no workable political party process that would lead to one. Peru is suffering precisely because the citizenry, impatient with politicians and fed up with a stalemate, turned to an outsider, a non-politician, a man without a party who was beholden to no one--because he pledged to reform a system he regarded as corrupt. When it was he who turned out to be corrupt, Peruvians had nowhere to turn.

The disastrous denouement of the Fujimori era reminds us in the U.S. that although politicians and party structures and their dependence on special interests have their serious drawbacks, they also to contribute in different ways to the predictability and stability of our institutions.

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