Democracy Derailed?

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Fujimori's Legacy in Peru

After a decade leading Peru's fragile democracy, Alberto Fujimori left the presidency on November 20, 2000, amid a political maelstrom that engulfed his administration and the country's governmental institutions.

Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori's most trusted advisor and director of the reviled National Intelligence Service (whose acronym in Spanish is, ironically, SIN), was caught on video making bribes. He may have embezzled US$50 million from government coffers, and investigations are ongoing. Fujimori resigned and chose exile in his parents' home country of Japan over returning to face an enraged Congress.

In his 10 years of increasingly authoritarian rule, Fujimori dismantled Peru's already tenuous democracy by systematically undermining popularly elected political organs through voter fraud and constitutional manipulation. While Peru was hardly a model democracy prior to Fujimori's election, after his time in office it remains nothing more than a chaotic political landscape. Peru under Fujimori is a case study in how strongman politics can stifle nascent democracy and undermine a country's prospects for future democratic growth.

In April 1992, after being in office for a mere two years, Fujimori dissolved Congress and suspended the constitution, purportedly because lawmakers "blocked reforms and weakened the war on leftist rebels," as USA Today reported. Such an egregious act discredited Peru's claim to be a legitimate democracy. Fujimori manipulated Congress again in 1997 when legislators voted 52-33 to dismiss three members of the Constitutional Court who had ruled that Fujimori could not seek a third term as president. As Anne Manuel, Deputy Director for Human Rights Watch, stated at the time, Fujimori "so thoroughly controls the Congress that he can get them to do whatever he wants, and now dismissing these judges clearly demonstrates that his government won't tolerate an independent judiciary." Under his administration, the legislative and judicial authorities were fused with that of the presidency, creating a dictatorship in all but name.

Fujimori's disrespect for democracy transformed Peru's constitution. After suspending the constitution in 1992, Fujimori ordered the new Congress to amend it in order to allow him to seek a second term. The 1990 constitution under which he was elected forbade reelection, but rather than abide by the country's laws, he defied them and wrote new ones. Before Fujimori's resignation, only Fidel Castro had been a Latin American head of state for longer. Fujimori's repeated betrayal of the principles of presidential democracy sent the message that, while Fujimori was in power, Peruvian politics had to be played by his rules.

Members of Fujimori's political party, Cambio (Change) 90, and certain factions of the military, however, still argue that a strong leader was desperately needed to bring stability to what was then an anarchic Peru. They claim that both inflation and the civil war with the Shining Path rebels were not brought under control until after Fujimori first suspended the constitution in 1992. Close analysis of the situation, however, yields a more complete picture. While inflation has been brought under control, further privatization of state industries has not benefited the vast majority of Peruvians, instead increasing inequality. This trend, coupled with Peru's 10. …