The Economist; London; Apr 17, 1999; Anonymous;
THE president has become a fixture on Peru's afternoon radio and the evening television news. Whether in his presidential palace or on a trip to the provinces, there he is, talking with reporters, day after day, in what looks ever more like campaigning for a controversial third term. And it is working: Alberto Fujimori currently scores around 40% in the opinion polls, up at least ten points since December.
His popularity flagged late last year when he made a series of trips abroad, leading Peruvians to perceive him as more interested in other statesmen than in solving their everyday problems. Even the peace accord he reached with Ecuador, sorting out the last disputed tract of the two countries' frontier, did not help him much, after critics questioned some aspects of the agreement as too generous.
In January, Mr Fujimori moved to breathe new life into his lacklustre administration, with a complete revamp of the cabinet, which now includes three women. His prime minister, Victor Joy Way, a longtime government insider, reached out to the media to drive home a message about the government's priorities for the coming months: reactivating the economy, creating jobs and fighting poverty.
The effect has been somewhat marred in recent weeks by open sparring between Mr Joy Way and the outspoken labour minister, Jorge Mufarech, over the latter's charges of corruption in the customs agency, and Mr Fujimori on April 14th made more cabinet changes. But if he does indeed intend to run again-he claims that he is yet to make up his mind-the proclaimed priorities may be just the ticket.
Yet it is by no means certain that the revival in Mr Fujimori's popularity can be sustained. His right to run for re-election at all is open to question. The constitution bars a third term. The way round that was the fact that he was first elected, in 1990, under a previous constitution, plus a law, passed in 1996, supposedly "interpreting" the present one to the effect that his first term therefore did not count. This was a manifest boondoggle, but Mr Fujimori's friends in Congress duly pushed it through, and when some of the constitutional judges disagreed he sacked them. He has also installed sympathisers in the electoral bodies. Public opinion has by now been moulded to swallow this, but the manoeuvring did not win Mr Fujimori friends.
A bigger doubt is the economy. It was battered last year by the storms of El Nino, turmoil in world financial markets and low minerals prices. Growth was under 1%. Since then, fishing, mining and agriculture have picked up. But confidence is fragile, and demand sputtering. The government's earlier projections of 4.5-5.5% growth for have been scaled back to 3%.
Pollsters say voters will choose according to their expectations for the economy. They gave Mr Fujimori the benefit of the doubt when they awarded him a second term in 1995, but they want to see results. The government is negotiating yet another three-year accord with the IMF. That should reassure foreign moneymen in a pre-electoral year, but a deal could also limit Mr Fujimori's ability to spend in the run-up to the elections. Nor will getting one be all plain sailing: he may face friction with the IMF over his about-face on plans to privatise the remaining state-owned electricity and oil businesses, another apparent bid to win back popular support.
One thing, though, is clearly in his favour: the weakness of his opponents. They failed to capitalise on the divisions within the government. And no opposition figure of any weight has emerged to challenge Mr Fujimori. The two names most often mentioned are those of Alberto Andrade, the mayor of Lima, and of Luis Castaneda, a former chief of the social security institute. But neither man has yet declared that he plans to run.
Alan Garcia, a charismatic ex-president, could be a wild card. His term, 1985-9o, was marked by soaring prices, labour unrest and a rash attempt to nationalise Peru's banks; and by a continuing rise of far-left terrorism. But he plans a political comeback, saying he will run for Congress, and presenting himself, in a series of interviews, as a mature, pragmatic politician who has learned from his past errors. He might supply leadership for the opposition. Whether that would do it much good is another matter. Mr Garcia's emergence could well remind voters of past inflation and guerrilla violence, and of who it was that largely defeated both: Mr Fujimori.