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Peru Uninspired by `Return to Democracy'

Leaders expect vote to bring international legitimacy, but opposition parties cry foul

MOST of Peru's 11 million voters will turn out, if somewhat grudgingly, for Sunday's elections. They have little choice: Voting is compulsory and failure to comply involves a fine of $60, more than many people earn in a month.

Candidates and the local media are calling this election Peru's "return to democracy." But in the street markets of Lima's dusty, overcrowded shantytowns, the predominant mood is apathy.

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"Who cares what happens on Sunday?" says Elvira Melendez, a watermelon vendor. "Politicians never do anything for us. What concerns people like me is finding a way to feed the family tonight."

Sunday's voting is to select representatives for a new 80-member legislative body to replace the Congress dissolved April 5 by President Alberto Fujimori with the backing of the armed forces. Mr. Fujimori alleged the Congress was obstructing his countersubversive strategy and blocking his economic reform program.

The new "democratic constituent congress" will be charged with writing a replacement constitution as well as initiating legislation and acting as a watchdog on the government.

The proposal for the new congress was hastily hatched in May to appease an international community outraged by Fujimori's seizure of one-man rule.

The administration confidently expects the elections, which are being monitored by a team of more than 200 international observers, to win back the political legitimacy needed for the resumption of economic assistance, which was frozen in the wake of April's coup.

But Peru's major political parties are boycotting the elections. They claim the new congress has its hands tied in advance and will be reduced to rubber-stamping decisions made by Fujimori and his immediate circle of ministers.

"Those of us who have always governed by the Constitution, whether it was entirely to our liking or not, cannot allow ourselves to become the accomplices of a dictator," says two-time president and respected elder statesman Fernando Belaunde Terry. His Popular Action Party is quietly advising followers to spoil their ballots. Peru's largest single party, the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance, is openly doing the same.

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"This election may see the largest number of null and void votes ever recorded in Peru," predicts Alfredo Torres, analyst at the Lima-based research and polling organization Apoyo.

Fujimori is throwing his considerable weight - backed by lavish pre-electoral handouts in the provinces and Lima's shantytowns - behind an official coalition comprising former ministers and "independents." Prophetically baptized the New Majority, it is headed by Jaime Yoshiyama, Fujimori's former energy and mines minister, and appears able to command about 35 percent of the vote - enough to give Fujimori a congressional majority, since only valid votes will count in the proportional assignment of seats.

The nearest rival is a new grouping called Renovation, which has pledged to support the Fujimori administration, with around 7 percent. The established Popular Christian Party trails in third place with 6 percent.

The still-dissatisfied voter can choose from among another 15 "parties," almost all newly formed for this election. None of these is expected to capture more than 4 percent of the vote.

After the election Fujimori is expected to press for such proposals as the introduction of the death penalty for convicted terrorists and a constitutional provision allowing the immediate reelection of presidents, which is banned under Peru's current Constitution.

Any opposition to Fujimori is likely to arise outside of the new congress. A spate of bombings in Lima in the run-up to polling day is an alarming reminder that Peru's leftist guerrillas have not yet been defeated.

The coup attempt Nov. 13 by a group of disgruntled Army officers was another indication of underlying instability. Although it came nowhere near being successful, "it is an alarming signal that Fujimori's military support, generally considered solid, is in fact flawed," comments a foreign military attache in Lima.

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