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POLITICS : Candidate Lagging, Opposition Hopes Peru Leader Stumbles

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Javier Perez de Cuellar, the former U.N. secretary general now running for the Peruvian presidency, has injected his campaign with all the excitement of a 300-page U.N. report on South American shipping regulations.

Opponents of President Alberto Fujimori had hoped that a diplomat of Perez de Cuellar’s stature would inspire the confidence of Peruvian voters, thwarting Fujimori’s try for a second term in power. But it hasn’t happened so far.

The opposition’s best hope now appears to be that Fujimori’s own excesses, weaknesses and family foibles might break the momentum of his steamroller campaign before the April 9 elections. So they took heart this week when Susana Higuchi, Fujimori’s estranged wife, embarrassed the president once again.

Higuchi started a hunger strike in front of the National Electoral Jury in Lima. She stayed out all night and part of the next day, protesting a decision that barred her slate of obscure candidates from running for Congress.

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The jury said Higuchi’s ticket was incomplete because seven names were repeated. Higuchi said that was a technicality used to deny her rights at the instigation of her husband.

The jury previously barred Higuchi from running for president.

She has charged that her husband’s administration is corrupt and insensitive to the needs of Peru’s impoverished majority, and that his intelligence police have persecuted her. Fujimori has “fired” her as first lady and, according to Higuchi, has kept their four teen-age children away.

Former Sen. Enrique Bernales, an opposition politician, called the president’s treatment of his wife “truly inhumane.” He predicted that, with the opposition’s help, the president will alienate more and more voters by showing himself to be unscrupulous and power-hungry.

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“Fujimori is a glutton for power,” Bernales said. “We have to lead him to the table where he will gag on it.”

Higuchi’s demonstration ended Wednesday after she fainted and was taken to the hospital. But Bernales predicted that the episode will end up costing Fujimori.

A Lima poll, taken before Higuchi’s hunger strike, showed that Fujimori’s support had dropped by about 7 points, to 45%. Could that be the start of a trend? Maybe, said Giovanna Penaflor, manager of Imasen polling firm.

“That drop, it seems to me, is worrisome for Fujimori, because Lima is his stronghold,” Penaflor said.

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Fujimori, 56, a son of Japanese immigrants and a former university administrator, rose from obscurity to beat novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in 1990’s presidential elections. In April, 1992, with army backing, Fujimori shut down the Congress, charging that opposition legislators were obstructing his efforts to cure the sick economy and fight a bloody war against the Maoist Shining Path.

His move against the corruption-riddled Congress met with overwhelming popular support but international rejection. Yielding to foreign pressure, Fujimori called new congressional elections and won majority support in the 80-member body.

According to polls, his coalition is unlikely to win a majority in the new 120-member Congress. And pollsters say there is a chance he will not win a majority and avoid a runoff.

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Perez de Cuellar, 75, is the leading challenger, but has been running more than 20 points behind Fujimori. He is backed by a broad coalition that includes leftists and rightists.

Carlos Chipoco, a campaign planner for Perez de Cuellar, said the candidate has had a slow start because he had no campaign experience.

“We had to teach him to be a candidate,” Chipoco said. “And he has been learning.”

No. 3 in polls has been Alejandro Toledo, 48, an economist.

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