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Friday, 26 May, 2000, 13:19 GMT 14:19 UK
Peru on the brink
Fujimori supporters cheering at rally
Fujimori supporters are wooed by his charm
By Stephen Cviic in Lima

At this time of year, the Peruvian capital, Lima, hangs under a permanent sea-mist known as the garua.

The garua is one of the city's hallmarks, blocking out the view of the nearby Andes mountains, and giving the beachside suburb of Miraflores a mysterious romantic quality.

But there's nothing hazy, mysterious or romantic about Peruvian politics at the moment. Opinions are, for the most part, clear-cut and polarised.

President Fujimori
Fujimori is an unashamed populist

The main reason for the polarisation is President Alberto Fujimori.

Mr Fujimori is an extraordinary politician, a man who governs using a mixture of old-fashioned Latin American populism, an Asian-style reputation for competent management, and an iron fist.

Many poor Peruvians have enormous admiration for their president.

One thing I have heard time and time again is that he rescued the country from chaos.

He hasn't been a bad president, I don't mind if he wins, but he has to do it cleanly

taxi driver

That is at least partly true. In the early 1990s, Mr Fujimori smashed two left-wing guerrilla movements and engineered a dramatic economic recovery after a terrible bout of hyperinflation.

Peru, which was once notorious as the most dangerous country in Latin America, has gladly handed that title over to Colombia.

Tourism has boomed, and the Asian crisis hit the country less hard than many of its neighbours.

The charm offensive

The president has also been careful to cultivate the poor. He tours the country tirelessly, inaugurating new schools and hospitals, and using a network of government soup-kitchens as part of his power-base.

Anti-Fujimori demonstration in Lima
Opposition protests have been met with tear gas

His tactics are unashamedly populist. Electoral rallies are full of supporters who the opposition say are bribed and bused in.

On the stage, Mr Fujimori does a little dance as the crowd sing out his nickname - "Chino" - a loose reference to his Japanese origins.

But at least one-third of the electorate detests the president, whom they routinely refer to as a dictator.

In 1992, he shut down Congress in a military-backed "self-coup" and tore up the constitution, allowing himself to stand for re-election.

Last year, he leant on the judiciary to permit him to stand yet again.

His firm grip on Peru's terrestrial television channels is notorious - in the first round of this year's election, observers said the bias was flagrant.

Opposing views

Some people are fed up with him because of continuing poverty and unemployment, but there is also a good deal of principled democratic opposition.

Opposition candidate  Alejandro Toledo
Toledo has rejected violence

One taxi driver told me: "He hasn't been a bad president. I don't mind if he wins, but he has to do it cleanly".

All this discontent has been channelled into the campaign of Alejandro Toledo, an English-speaking economist of indigenous origin with a North American wife.

Mr Toledo's views on several subjects are unclear, and many people see voting for him as a leap in the dark. But he doesn't bribe people to go to his rallies, and has rejected the idea of violent protests against the government.

Sunday's election will not put an end to this polarisation, especially because Mr Toledo has called for a boycott, alleging fraud.

Under these circumstances, Mr Fujimori will win another five years in office, his opponents will re-double their cries of "dictator", and under the sea-mist of Lima, a dramatic political crisis could unfold.

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See also:

26 Apr 00 | Americas
US threatens Peru with sanctions
10 Apr 00 | Americas
Peru poll sparks angry protests
08 Apr 00 | Americas
Test for Peruvian democracy
06 Apr 00 | Americas
Fraud claims mar Peru campaign
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