Stressed Democracies

Two of South America’s most fragile democracies have suffered severe strains as opposition movements mobilized and challenged the legitimacy of long-entrenched political establishments.

Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori’s bid for reelection to a third term galvanized his opponents to unite behind the populist candidacy of rival Alejandro Toledo. In Bolivia, popular discontent over rising water costs, severely depressed wages, and unfinished agrarian reform erupted in a series of mass demonstrations triggering President Hugo
Banzer’s declaration of a state of siege in early April.

Regional commentators credited the Peruvian opposition’s charge of fraud in
electoral procedures and substantial delays in the release of official results as crucial in persuading international monitors, the Clinton administration, and Peruvian election authorities that Fujimori could not honestly claim a clear majority in the first-round presidential vote on April 9.

In Lima’s liberal La República (April 16), Mirko Lauer argued that the first-round vote count—which put Fujimori just shy of the margin needed to avoid a runoff —“demonstrates the crisis in the electoral process in reproducing and legitimizing political power....It is going to take quite a while to erase the idea that presidents here are the product of fraud.”

A La República editorial (April 16) said that Fujimori sought unfair political advantage by monopolizing broadcast coverage, manipulating federal electoral machinery, and boosting public-sector expenditures to support his campaign. At the same time, he called Toledo “the incarnation of disorder and violence....But what greater incitement to disorder and violence could there be than the behavior of a government that creates unemployment and social marginalization, that benefits a minority and condemns the majority to wait for the ‘trickle down’ that never comes?”

Fujimori supporters said the alliance behind Toledo’s campaign managed to force a runoff not because it could produce persuasive evidence that the incumbent had failed to top 50 percent but because it convinced U.S. and European governments to raise the threat of sanctions in the event of a disputed first-round decision.

“The entire country has been the victim...of international aggression that has reduced us to the condition of a banana republic in which any European or American…can travel south of the Rio Grande to tell the half-savages what to do or how to act,” lamented Lima’s conservative Expreso (April 16).

Viewed from other countries, Peru’s electoral turmoil raises concern that neither a third-term Fujimori presidency nor a “national unity” administration under Toledo will emerge from the second-round runoff with a clear mandate to govern and enough  clout to forge a working majority in the politically fragmented congress elected in April. “Toledo, like Fujimori in 1990, is the candidate who came from nowhere,” wrote José Carlos Pérez of Santiago’s conservative La Tercera (April 16).

In Bogota’s centrist El Tiempo (April 13), Rodrigo Pardo predicted a bleak post-election landscape of “an atomized congress, exhausted public opinion, and polarized society” that will render it far more difficult for the next administration to govern effectively. That outlook provides a potent warning, Pardo added, to Colombians who have been tempted to emulate Fujimori’s successful formula of clever politics, authoritarianism, and market-oriented reforms. “However grave our problems may be, we do not need a Fujimori,” he concluded.

In Bolivia, Banzer’s declaration of a state of siege in early April aimed to quell protests sparked by planned privatization of water utilities in Cochabamba, police demands for 50-percent wage increases in several major cities, and smoldering campesino discontent with impoverished rural living conditions and unfulfilled promises of agrarian reform.

“What emerges plainly from the conflict…is the poverty that is manifested in open protest, unrestrained anger, and even a sense of powerlessness,” wrote the independent Los Tiempos of Cochabamba (April 11). The government’s effort to implement the water privatization, aborted when the general strike in Cochabamba precipitated withdrawal of a lead investor, underscores that public policy in a democracy not only must satisfy the letter of the law but “must be legitimate and recognize the common needs and aspirations of the citizenry,” Los Tiempos added.

Banzer’s capitulation to the demands of police officers, campesinos, and the general strike front in Cochabamba has drawn criticism in the Bolivian press as a sign of weakness. Carlos D. Mesa Quisbert, in the independent La Prensa of La Paz (April 16), said that “far from maintaining order and guaranteeing social peace,…[the state of siege] has obtained absolutely the opposite result.” While he accepted that Banzer must serve out the remaining two years of his elected term, he observed, “Bolivians have the right to demand that in the time left in his mandate, he will do us the favor of governing.”