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Peru is no democracy

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President Alberto Fujimori is almost sure to win his third term in Peru's April presidential elections. But, unlike his two earlier victories, these elections aren't even close to being free or fair. His decision to run violates the country's constitution - or, at least, it appears that way to everyone but the president's political allies and the handpicked judges who permitted his candidacy for a third five-year term.

There is no question that Mr. Fujimori has been an extraordinarily successful leader. Indeed, if he'd chosen to govern democratically and respect the rule of law, he'd now be leaving office as a distinguished statesman - one of Peru's and Latin America's greatest presidents ever.

One notable triumph of his administration was to restore personal security to Peru's ordinary citizens by defeating two virulent guerrilla movements, which were terrorizing the country and threatening its integrity.

Another was the conquering of hyperinflation, which had left the country bankrupt and most of its people in desperate poverty. Since Fujimori's first election in 1990, Peru's economy has grown by an average of 5 percent a year, a record exceeded in Latin America only by Chile and Argentina.

Fujimori also deserves much credit for resolving Peru's bitter, long-standing border dispute with Ecuador, which had recently broken into armed conflict. The production of illegal narcotics has also been sharply reduced during his presidency.

But Fujimori will not be celebrated as a great president because he has not been a democrat. He closed down Congress and the courts in 1992 - less than two years after he took power. Although they were reopened a short time later, those institutions have largely done the president's bidding ever since. The press has been muffled, and political opponents are routinely harassed and sometimes jailed. The Army and security services wield considerable power.

This isn't to say Peru has been transformed into an oppressive police state - on the order, for example, of Pinochet's Chile, Somoza's Nicaragua, or Castro's Cuba. The country retains important democratic elements. Opposition activity is permitted. Political institutions, including the congress, judiciary, political parties, and labor unions, retain some measure of independence. Harsh repression isn't used as an instrument of political or social control, and human rights violations have declined sharply since the defeat of the guerrilla insurgencies.

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