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Peru's return to democracy

Peru's President-Elect Fernando Belaunde Terry can be excused a wry smile after his election victory last month, returning him to the presidency of the Andean nation from which the military ousted him 12 years ago. There is sweet vindication in his victory.

But Mr. Belaunde Terry returns to power in a nation that has undergone major changes in the 12-year military interregnum. Peru's economic and social foundations have undergone a basic restructuring. Oil, mining, fishmeal, and banking have been nationalized, a sweeping agrarian reform program has been started, and the traditional landholding gentry have lost much of their economic and social power. In addition, Mr. Belaunde Terry inherits a country whose population has soared in the intervening years from 11 million to just over 18 million. Half of the nearly 6 million Peruvians who went to the polls May 18 had never before voted.

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The problems before Mr. Belaunde Terry are immense. Although the economic and social changes brought on by the military are likely to be permanent, the country's economy has been in a tailspin during much of the past decade. Inflation is soaring; unemployment is high; mineral and fishing exports are down; and there is a general economic crisis. The military leaders had come to realize that they did not have solutions for these problems. In turning the presidency back to the civilians, they rid themselves of their burden and put it on the shoulders of the civilians -- and particularly Mr. Belaunde Terry. He has his work cut out for him.

But the return to civilian rule is encouraging. For the first time in nearly two decades Peruvians have been able to choose their leaders. Mr. Belaunde Terry, winning 45 percent of the vote, was clearly the choice of the biggest bloc of voters. Although he did not win an absolute majority, he and his moderate Popular Action Party should have the early support of the center-left American Popular Revolutionary Alliance, for the two parties had similar platforms urging continuation of the military-sponsored economic and social changes.

It can be hoped that the military will keep its hands out of politics and allow Mr. Belaunde Terry to rule. The success of a democratic government in Peru will have an effect on both Ecuador and Bolivia, which similarly are in the process of returning to civilian rule. And it could have an effect on Argentina and Chile as well, although perhaps further along in time. Thus those who favor democracy in South America cannot but be encouraged by the Peruvian trend.

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