Nearly eight weeks after President Alberto Fujimori announced plans to resign and call new elections, Peruvian politics are messy and unsettled. There is reason to be optimistic that free and fair elections will be held on April 8, as approved by Congress recently. That outcome is by no means assured, however.
The main threat to a successful transition is not that Mr. Fujimori will renege, or that the armed forces will stage a coup. It is the generalized weakness and distrust that characterize Peru's political institutions and actors. This has created a special role for the international community, especially the Organization of American States (OAS), as vividly demonstrated by the recent sequence of political events in Lima.
The situation in Peru took a dark turn recently when Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori's former intelligence chief, returned to Peru from exile in Panama - in what many saw as an attempt to reestablish power and resist an electoral transition.
Concern was heightened when government negotiators, in an ongoing OAS-supervised dialogue, began insistently to demand, in exchange for proceeding toward elections, a sweeping amnesty for military and civilian officials.
There was no way opposition groups could accept this demand, which was so outrageous it provoked the resignation of Fujimori's vice president.
This is when the OAS exerted its most forceful action to date, supported strongly by the US government. Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria traveled to Lima, where he berated Fujimori for allowing Montesinos's return and demanded he live up to other political commitments.
The situation appears to have turned around, and the OAS dialogue has begun to produce results: An election date has been set.
The amnesty demand has been assigned to a special commission. Progress is being made toward restoring confiscated media outlets to their owners. Four senior generals have been replaced. And, in what seems to be a bizarre effort to visibly show his break with Montesinos, Fujimori has taken personal charge of the search to locate his former adviser, accompanying military units through neighborhoods and barracks in Lima.
The OAS role won't be over, however, until a new president is elected and takes power. There is no one else who has the capacity or credibility to drive the transition process and make it work.
Fujimori's authority has eroded, and now it depends on external support. Although he ranks higher in the polls than any other politician, his sources of support in the military, business community, and Congress are all precarious. No one associated with the government has much standing or power left - except for the country's ombudsman, Jorge Santisevan, whose authority is largely moral and untested. The discredited military is mostly concerned about avoiding prosecution for criminal activity. Congress and the courts remain largely on the sidelines. Even Montesinos looks impotent, although it may be unwise to count him out too soon.
The opposition is also weak. The leading opposition figure, Alejandro Toledo, polled more than 40 percent in this year's presidential elections, but surveys taken a few weeks ago indicate his support has dropped to less than one-quarter of Peruvians.
Deeply divided, the opposition has been unable to exert pressure on the government, gain much international confidence, or reassure Peruvians that it can effectively lead the country.
These circumstances explain why the OAS, despite a questionable track record in Peru, was called on to help establish the rules for legitimate elections and subsequent transfer of power.
A special OAS mission, created prior to Fujimori's decision to resign, has the task of coordinating a national dialogue on transition-related issues. No one else can keep the government and opposition at the table. But this effort cannot work without the kind of active support from the OAS leadership and member states that was so evident when the secretary-general made his visit.
International pressure should demand from the government an unambiguous commitment to conduct free elections and turn power over to the winner. It is crucial that the government fulfill its pledges to the OAS to end its monopoly on television broadcasts, close the national intelligence service, and establish a new electoral commission.
Opposition groups should be encouraged to focus on reaching agreements to assure free elections, leave other contentious issues aside, and work with the government to make the transition succeeds.
The opposition should be demonstrating that it clearly is ready to take power and govern - by expressing a willingness, for example, to establish a broad-based administration with cooperation among many groups.
The OAS's role, in short, is to make the government and opposition accept the same goal: a successful transition to democracy.
Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society