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Thursday, October 1, 1998 Published at 17:29 GMT 18:29 UK

World: Americas

Constitutional debate underlies Peru unrest

Demonstrations against Fujimori standing for a third term

By World Service Analyst James Read

The violent clashes between police and demonstrators in the Peruvian capital, Lima, follow a day of action called by trade unions, students and opposition politicians across Peru.

They are protesting against President Alberto Fujimori's authoritarian style of government and his attempts to ensure that he will be allowed to stand for re-election in the year 2000.

As well as running battles outside the presidential palace, further violent clashes occurred elsewhere in the city, particularly outside the congress building, where several congressmen were beaten.

The street protests were the most serious that Mr Fujimori has had to confront in his eight years in power, and amongst the most violent that the Peruvian capital has witnessed in decades.

Mr Fujimori's political reputation has always been that of an authoritarian strongman, and in the early years this formed the basis of his popularity.

In his first government, he was widely seen as having saved Peru from political and economic chaos.

First elected in 1990, he quickly conquered hyperinflation by introducing harsh economic austerity measures.

Shining Path

[ image: Fujimori: Reputation as an authoritarian strongman]
Fujimori: Reputation as an authoritarian strongman
Two years later he suspended the constitution, dissolved the congress and closed the judiciary, claiming that these bodies were restricting his ability to combat the Maoist Shining Path rebels that had brought the country to the brink of collapse.

Despite the anti-democratic nature of these measures, Fujimori's popularity soared, as his seizure of dictatorial power was apparently vindicated by a series of dramatic victories over the rebels.

Under international pressure to return Peru to democracy, Fujimori held congressional elections in 1993.

Dominated by his political allies, the new congress drew up a new constitution allowing, amongst other things, presidential re-election, previously prohibited in Peru.

In 1995, Fujimori was duly re-elected for a second term, by a majority so large that he and his supporters immediately began considering a third.

A matter of interpretation

[ image: Fujimori clamped down hard on the activities of Shining Path rebels]
Fujimori clamped down hard on the activities of Shining Path rebels
The new constitution, however, states that a president can only be re-elected once.

To counter this, Mr Fujimori argued that, as his first election occurred under the previous constitution, his 1995 victory was not a re-election.

He therefore claimed that under the new constitution he could stand for another term, even though this would constitute a third term in total.

When three members of the constitutional tribunal disagreed with Mr Fujimori's interpretation, declaring that his re-election for a third term would be unconstitutional, he promptly sacked them.

The Democratic Forum, an opposition-backed lobby group, then began a petition demanding a referendum on the issue. Although more than a million Peruvians signed up, it was rejected by congress on 27 August.

Yesterday's demonstrations were held in response to that rejection.

With concern growing that the authoritarian measures used so successfully against the Shining Path are now being turned against the democratic opposition, recent opinion polls suggest that 69% of the electorate oppose Mr Fujimori being allowed to stand for a third term.

His authoritarian style, so long his greatest strength, is beginning to appear a weakness.

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