Creeping Dictatorship Challenges Democrats in Latin America Peru Thwarted Voters Last Week, as Region Faced Leaders' Efforts to Stay in Power

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Peru's Congress last week cleared the last of the obstacles for President Alberto Fujimori to seek a third, consecutive five-year term. It voted last week against holding a referendum on whether Mr. Fujimori can seek reelection.

This is the boldest example of what many call a democracy- threatening trend to allow reelections in Latin America.

Most constitutions in the region forbid the reelection of incumbents in an attempt to prevent the return of the dictatorships that once plagued the region.

But recently a number of countries have amended their constitutions to allow for one presidential reelection.

Peru was on the forefront of this new trend when, in 1993, it rewrote its Constitution allowing for two presidential terms.

Argentina followed closely on Peru's heels amending its Constitution in 1994, allowing Carlos Menem to be elected to a second term in 1995.

In 1997 Brazil amended its Constitution, clearing the way for Henrique Cardosa to run again this coming October.

Panama held a referendum Sunday to decide whether President Ernesto Perez Balladares can run again in presidential elections in May, and the Dominican Republic is considering a similar measure.

Panama has special interest, because whoever is elected in May will take office in September, just a few months before the US hands over the Panama Canal and military bases there in December.

Peru's move to allow Fujimori a third consecutive run at the presidency is a first in the region.

The caudillo backlash

These recent constitutional changes, some worry, are the latest incarnation of a recurrent trend in Latin American politics. In the 19th century, dictatorships were the rule in Latin America. By the turn of the century a backlash against caudillo, or strongman-style politics, sparked revolutions and led to the writing of "no- reelection" constitutions throughout the region.

But despite these constitutional restrictions, autocratic rule returned to the region once again with the rise of military dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s. By the early 1990s democratically elected governments had largely returned to the region.

But the defeat of the referendum effort has many Peruvians crying dictatorship.

Recent polls showed over 70 percent of Peruvians are in favor of holding a referendum and 68 percent would have voted against reelection.

"The government has taken away our right to decide and to be consulted," says Angel Delgado of Foro Democratico, the group that collected signatures for the referendum. "Instead of a referendum we get reelection by means of a government that is vertical, authoritarian, and abusive of power."

Argentina provides a stark contrast with Peru's recent developments. Just over a month ago President Menem looked as if he would be the first Latin American president to seek a third term in 1999. …