Jaded Voters May Eclipse Candidates in Peru Race


As if the past year of drama and turmoil had not been enough, the marathon race for the Peruvian presidency culminates today in a suspenseful showdown in which undecided and disgruntled voters will play a key role.

Stanford-educated economist Alejandro Toledo, a onetime shoeshine boy hoping to become Peru's first elected president of indigenous descent, has spent two dogged years on the campaign trail and remains the man to beat in the runoff election.

But nothing is easy or predictable in Peruvian politics, which have been warped by a decade of authoritarianism and police-state tactics during the reign of fallen President Alberto Fujimori. In the final days of a raucously negative campaign, surveys show former President Alan Garcia--a political pariah until a few months ago--gaining rapidly on Toledo. One poll showed a statistical tie, although other pollsters insist that Toledo leads by as much as 10 percentage points.

Both candidates are personable and intelligent, but many Peruvians don't see either man as the ideal leader to rebuild a troubled democracy at a moment of intense uncertainty.

The new president "will receive a broken nation with a discredited military, a discredited political leadership and a discredited business class," said Julio Cotler, a political expert at the Institute for Peruvian Studies in Lima, the capital.

Toledo has never held elected office and has little executive experience. Garcia was once the boy wonder of Latin American politics, but his presidential tenure from 1985 to 1990 was a nightmare of hyperinflation, food shortages, runaway terrorism and disastrous defiance of foreign creditors that isolated Peru from the international financial community.

The contest is complicated by an electoral wild card: Peruvians are so disappointed with both candidates that a grass-roots campaign to cast blank or spoiled protest ballots could draw a quarter of the vote. Voting is mandatory in Peru.

Weary voters here have gone to the polls four times in 14 months and seen institutions and politicians crumble in spectacular fashion. There is deep-seated disgust with an elite whose rapacious ways were graphically revealed by a torrent of scandal after the fall of strongman Fujimori nearly six months after he was elected to a third term last year.

"Fujimori was born politically as an expression of [voter] discontent," said journalist Alvaro Vargas Llosa, a former Toledo advisor who is now a leader of the drive to cast protest ballots. "He created a dictatorship. Time froze, the renovation of the political class that people wanted did not occur, and now democracy has returned--with its component of frustration with the political class."

The size of the projected "neither-of-the-above" protest vote makes predictions harder than usual. Some of those disgruntled voters, many of whom are students and middle-class, are expected to choose a candidate at the last moment. Garcia could gain more of those ballots, according to pundits, because some voters are embarrassed to tell pollsters they plan to vote for him.

A Volatile Electorate

Garcia's last-minute charge in the polls worries foreign investors and diplomats and shows that politics here is as volatile and personality-driven as ever.

At 52, the former president is still boyish and literally croons his way into the hearts of fellow citizens; his best campaign advertisement juxtaposes images of everyday Peruvians with Garcia's smooth voice singing a traditional song. His startling comeback has relied on crowd-pleasing rhetoric and the political machine of Peru's oldest and strongest party, the populist American Popular Revolutionary Alliance.

Shrugging off accusations of illegal enrichment that haunted him throughout nine years of self-exile in Paris and Colombia, Garcia claims that his days of hotheaded nationalism are behind him. He appeals to millions of new voters who are too young to remember his hapless administration. He criticizes the free-market orthodoxy of the 1990s and makes specific, simple promises to slash the costs of medicine and education and give municipal jobs to the direly poor.

"In the next 24 months, we can attain a concrete result that can end up--why not?--generating a million jobs," Garcia said in a televised debate last month. "I think the nation is fully capable of advancing, because it has been stifled by these neoliberal policies."

Despite Garcia's toothy smile and appeals for unity, his party has unleashed a mudslinging campaign against Toledo, who has Clintonian credibility problems and a checkered personal life. Toledo has been forced to deny allegations that he fathered an illegitimate child and that he falsely claimed to have been kidnapped in order to cover up a day of cocaine use and debauchery with prostitutes.

Toledo, 55, has fought back with similar aggressiveness. Taking advantage of the considerable ammunition left by Garcia's dubious legacy, Toledo warns that the former president will lead Peru into chaos.

Toledo also highlights his remarkable background: Born into a family of 16 in a bleak Andean village, he identifies with the downtrodden. As the candidate who took on Fujimori in last year's presidential election, he won his democratic credentials amid tear gas and street protests against the alleged fraud that he says prevented his victory.

And as a globe-trotting former consultant for the World Bank, Toledo's economic philosophy and inner circle combine the ideas of strait-laced financiers and veteran leftists.

"I am a man of the political center," Toledo said in a recent interview. "I believe in market economics with a human face. These days, the extremes of left and right really no longer exist. Everyone agrees that you must have fiscal discipline."

In addition, Toledo emphasizes the need to establish the rule of law. This has become a simultaneously political and economic priority throughout South America, where attempts at economic modernization have been repeatedly crippled by weak courts and overwhelming corruption.

In Peru, the profits of multimillion-dollar privatization of state enterprises during the Fujimori regime have seemingly evaporated with little benefit to the impoverished bottom half of the population. Investigations indicate that Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori's spy chief, turned the justice system, tax agency and security forces into a network of thievery and political persecution.

A top challenge to the troubled justice system is Montesinos, who has been a fugitive for eight months. The new president will inherit a huge investigation of bribery, drug smuggling and arms trafficking by an alleged "mafia" that involved prominent figures from the worlds of business, politics and the military.

Often documented by Montesinos' omnipresent spy cameras, the Pandora's box of scandals has contributed to the vicious tone of the presidential campaign and could be a source of future political instability. Until Montesinos is captured, moreover, there will be fears that the fugitive is using the remnants of his secret organization to weaken the government and ensure his impunity.

Most analysts say Toledo's battle against the fallen regime proves that he will be more likely to go after Montesinos as well as Fujimori, who has taken refuge in Japan to avoid prosecution.

Garcia doesn't appear eager to investigate the sins of the past because that could dredge up unresolved scandals from his administration. In addition, Montesinos began his rise in Peru's intelligence community during the final years of Garcia's presidency; critics allege that Montesinos has connections to the Garcia camp.

Clean Election Expected

Although many Peruvians are decidedly pessimistic about the future, the prospect for clean elections today looks better than last year.

The transition government that replaced Fujimori in November has worked hard to weed out agents of Montesinos' National Intelligence Service and install safeguards against fraud. An army of election observers, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, will be on hand to scrutinize the voting process. Authorities will be on alert for attempts to disrupt the elections, especially after a bombing last month that was believed to be the work of leftist terrorists or allies of Montesinos, whose spies infiltrated Peru's weakened terrorist factions in recent years.

Still, if the election is as close as some pollsters anticipate, a delay in definitive results could generate the kind of conflict that Peruvians experienced last year and would like very much to avoid.

No matter who wins, the Congress will be divided, the institutions weak, the economy inert. The new president will have to make a statesmanlike effort to rise above political battles, said Cotler, the political expert.

"For the transition to succeed, he will have to apply a formula that is neither magical nor miraculous: basic political accords," Cotler said. "The only path for either candidate, in order that the country does not collapse, is consensus. Out of necessity comes virtue."

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