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Crusading Peru Lawmaker, Top Opposition Leader Aim for Presidency

Latin America: One helped bring down spy chief. Economist Toledo had strong showing against Fujimori.

October 08, 2000|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LIMA, Peru — Fifteen years before he became an overnight presidential hopeful, Fernando Olivera was elected Peru's youngest congressman. His party's emblem was a broom.

The broom still symbolizes the 42-year-old former prosecutor's mission to clean up politics: since 1985 he has gone after larcenous politicians, murderous military officers and the like.

Hardly anyone imagined that the broom would sweep away an entire regime--much less a regime personified by Vladimiro Montesinos, the spy chief who wielded enormous power from the invisible throne of the National Intelligence Service (SIN).

Olivera and his congressional allies used an informal counterespionage network that he calls the "democratic SIN" to infiltrate the agency's fortress-like headquarters and obtain a video, recorded by official cameras, of Montesinos apparently bribing a congressman.

The broadcast of the video forced President Alberto Fujimori to announce new elections, sent Montesinos into exile and thrust Olivera into a group of potential presidential candidates. The hopefuls--even those loyal to Fujimori--face an unfamiliar political landscape after a decade of domination by the triple alliance of Fujimori, Montesinos and the military. Peru's stability has evaporated. The crisis has worsened the country's economic woes. Voters are disgusted with their leaders, but eager for genuine democracy.

"I feel ready to govern the nation," said Olivera, a restless, feisty man with steel-gray hair and an investigator's memory for details. "We hope it is a value to have been honest, courageous and capable of dialogue. The question for all Peruvians is: To whom are we going to turn over the nation?"

Global Observers Condemn Vote

Political fortunes change fast in Peru, where individual leaders count much more than parties. Fujimori enjoyed considerable popularity and won three elections, including this year's vote that was condemned by international observers.

His intensely personal, increasingly authoritarian rule reshaped the nation. His decision not to run next year began a volatile period that, in some ways, resembles a transition from dictatorship to democracy.

The video bombshell drove up the popularity of Olivera, founder of the Independent Moralizing Front. He has become the most admired politician in Peru, according to recent polls.

But the polls also indicate that Alejandro Toledo, a Stanford-educated economist, remains the opposition's top presidential contender based on his strong showing against Fujimori this spring in an election marred by dirty tricks.

Other candidates are emerging in the opposition, which has been traditionally weak and divided, and in the demoralized Fujimori forces.

"The nation's entire political class will change," said Giovanna Penaflor, a political pollster. "For 10 years the government killed off leaders. Not literally, but people were scared to get into politics and end up being persecuted by the tax agency or having their phones tapped."

The regime has engaged in subtle but suffocating repression, critics say.

The SIN allegedly used spying, harassment, lawsuits and negative press campaigns to beat down opponents.

The government has "managed" the opposition like chess pieces, according to Penaflor.

Some political analysts say the candidacy of Toledo, whose popularity went up 30 percentage points during the spring presidential campaign, took off partly because the government wanted to counterbalance the more-established candidates.

Among his own allies, Fujimori has changed Cabinet ministers frequently and generally discouraged the rise of ambitious successors, critics say.

Fujimori's decision to oust Montesinos and bow out recalls his "self-coup" in 1992, when he temporarily shut down Congress and assumed autocratic powers that he never really relinquished. Now the president promises to reform the electoral institutions, justice system and intelligence services.

"He has moved from the dictatorial side to the democratic side," said Javier Valle Riestra, who served as a prime minister for Fujimori. "This is like the second self-coup."

Strong Fujimori Candidate Likely

Despite the current disarray of Fujimori's political movement, it will most likely field a competitive candidate in the elections. Fujimori apparently hopes to retain influence over the candidate and survive as a power broker.

The strongest contender is Vice President Francisco Tudela, a right-wing former minister of foreign relations. Tudela was one of the 72 hostages held by terrorists in the Japanese ambassador's residence during four months in 1997. He won admiration for his fortitude, and was wounded in the commando raid that freed the hostages.

Another possible candidate is Absalon Vasquez, a former agriculture minister. Vasquez has a national political machine and a rapport with working people. But he was tarnished by an alleged scheme to falsify a million signatures to create a new pro-Fujimori political movement.

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