When Alberto Fujimori motored through Villa El Salvador on a humble tractor during Peru’s 1990 presidential campaign, residents of the dismal shantytown outside Lima defied an election boycott call by leftist guerrillas to hear the candidate speak. The Maoist Shining Path movement had been solidifying its hold on the desert slums that ring the Peruvian capital, so most residents’ main concern was what Fujimori, then an unknown agricultural engineer with scant government experience, could do about the armed insurrection. “He told us jg that his government would get rid of Shining Path,” recalled Ronald Ruiz, a former bartender in a Lima restaurant. “And he kept his word.”
Indeed, just five years after he leapt from obscurity to win the presidency, Fujimori has nearly ended a 15-year civil war responsible for 28,000 deaths and $28 billion in economic losses. His neoconservative government has also carried out radical reforms that turned Peru’s basket-case economy into one of the world’s top emerging markets. Such remarkable accomplishments would be celebrated in most countries.
But in Peru, one of Latin America’s poorest nations, voters are surprisingly uncertain about electing 56year-old Fujimori to another fiveyear term. “We’ve got other problems now—the poverty, the uncertainty of having a roof over our heads,” said Ruiz, who now sells meat in an outdoor market. “What’s important today is creating jobs, and Fujimori hasn’t said much about that.” Until recently, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants, would be re-elected in Peru’s April 9 general elections. Today, however, it is people like Ruiz who are proving the biggest threat to Fujimori’s aim of an unprecedented second term. Opposition candidates—there are 13, led by former two-term UN secretary general Javier Pérez de Cuéllar—have seeded doubts among the unemployed masses with attacks on two key fronts: Fujimori’s alleged failure to fight poverty, which affects more than half of Peru’s 24 million people, and the disastrous results of an undeclared border war last January with neighboring Ecuador, which continues to simmer despite a ceasefire. “Poverty and unemployment are the key issues, but the war is also important for undecided voters,” says Alfredo Torres of the polling firm Apoyo. In mid-February, with Peruvian and Ecuadoran troops clashing along a 77-km stretch of unmarked border in the northern Amazon, Fujimori’s patriotism-inspired poll ratings hit a high of 55 per cent. By late March, however, when voters learned that more than 50 Peruvians died fighting unsuccessfully to dislodge invading Ecuadoran troops, Fujimori had slipped to 47 per cent, with independent Pérez de Cuéllar holding
steady at about 20 per cent. If the downward trend continues, as Torres and others forecast, Fujimori may not win the necessary 50 per cent of the vote on April 9. He would then be forced to square off with the second-place finisher in a June runoff election. Memories of Fujimori’s own shocking second-round victory in 1990 over the front-runner, internationally acclaimed novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, make this an unpredictable scenario that the incumbent hopes to avoid.
Fujimori’s surprising strategy has been to avoid the day-to-day grind of direct campaigning—or even announce any new plans for the next five years. Instead, his routine includes daily inaugurations of infrastructure projects and inspections of work in progress. The schedule, and the media coverage it provides, transmits the image of a working president, or, as Fujimori often says, that of “the chief executive officer of a company called Peru.” Said Luis Jochamawitz, author of an acclaimed biography of the Peruvian president: “There’s this terrible contradiction in the way Fujimori has run his campaign until now. He speaks the language of the people and they respond to him, but he’s acting more and more like an economist when the country is asking him to be a statesman.”
While Fujimori stands by his record, opposition figures remind voters of the defining moment of his turbulent presidency: the April 5, 1992, auto-golpe, or self-coup, in which he suspended the country’s elected congress as well as its judiciary, and claimed near-dictatorial powers. (Seven months later, Fujimori’s party won a majority in a streamlined 80seat constituent assembly.) Fujimori justified the military-backed power grab with
claims that a corrupt congress was preventing him from fighting Shining Path and pushing through economic reforms. But while ousted politicos and the international community reacted with predictable outrage, surveys showed that more than 80 per cent of Peruvians supported the move at the time.
Just a few months later, Peruvian intelligence services put a feather in Fujimori’s cap by capturing Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán. The incarceration of the bearded former philosophy professor marked the end of the seemingly invincible Maoist movement. (On the downside, nearly half the population still lives in areas under emergency rule, which allows authorities to suspend constitutional rights, including protection against search and detention without warrant or charges and the rights of free movement and public assembly.) Later, unfettered by a doubting congressional opposition, Fujimori gave his team of technocrats free reign to implement a radical free-market revival of the Peruvian economy. Their reforms, buoyed by tightfisted macroeconomic control, have flourished. Inflation that hit an annual rate of 7,000 per cent just five years ago is expected to hover around 10 per cent this year, while GDP growth of 12 per cent in 1994 was among the world’s highest. A privatization program, heralded by U.S. President Bill Clinton as Latin America’s most ambitious, has seen the government put more than 70 money-losing companies into private hands, generating more than $4 billion. Meanwhile, a revamped legal code with new guarantees for foreign firms has led to a stampede of new investments: commitments in the mining sector alone (where numerous Canadian firms are active players) top $7 billion. “Three years ago, you couldn’t fill a tiny room with people interested in investing in Peru,” said José Luque, president of Lima’s small but booming stock exchange. ‘Today, we’ve got people beating down the doors to get in.”
Still, architects of reform, like ex-economy minister Carlos Boloña, say the job is only half-done. “We’ve gone from hell to purgatory,” Boloña said during a recent investment forum. Statistics support that assessment. At least 12 million Peruvians live in extreme poverty. Some 75 per cent of adults are underemployed. Half of Lima’s eight million residents live in dismal shantytowns, many without electricity, sewers or running water. ‘We need to declare a war against poverty and unemployment,” says candidate Pérez de Cuéllar, 75. There are things that this government has done well, but caring for the needs of the poor has simply not been one of them.”
One of Fujimori’s most vocal critics has been his estranged wife, Susana Higuchi, who denounced government corruption in mid-1994. The “Fujimori family feud” made headlines worldwide when the president fired his wife from the ceremonial position of first lady. He later banned her from the presidential palace, charging that she had become a pawn of the political opposition. Higuchi counterattacked that Fujimori forced the constituent assembly to pass a bill banning presidential family members from holding elected office, allegedly to prevent her from running against him. Since being relegated to the sidelines, Higuchi has announced plans to file for divorce. But attacks on what she calls her husband’s “authoritarian personality” have stuck with some voters.
While Pérez de Cuéllar and his supporters hope to force a runoff election, Fujimori appears to be confident that he will emerge victorious from the first round. The president spent a recent afternoon with visiting Japanese government officials discussing long-term investment plans that include a $295-million hydroelectric plant for poor peasants in an isolated area of the Andes. But whether Fujimori is still around to inaugurate the project in 1999 is in the hands of Peru’s restive voters.
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