As it has in the past, Peruvian politics defied regional trends in the 1990s. Whereas democracy either took hold (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay) or at least survived (Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua) throughout most of Latin America, it collapsed in Peru. That collapse took place on 5 April 1992, when President Alberto Fujimori, in a military-backed autogolpe (self-coup), closed the Congress, suspended the constitution, and purged the judiciary.1 After ruling by decree for seven months, the Fujimori government held elections for a constituent assembly in November 1992; in 1993, it secured the approval, via referendum, of a new constitution. Two years later, Fujimori, who had originally been elected president in 1990, was reelected by an over-whelming margin. These developments led many observers to place Peru back in the camp of democratic (or at least “delegative democratic”) regimes.2 Such a characterization is misleading, however. Although the restoration of formal constitutional rule and elections represented an important step away from full-fledged authoritarianism, it was accompanied by a systematic assault on a range of democratic institutions that has left contemporary Peru with a regime that is best described as “semidemocratic.”
The Fujimori regime falls short of widely accepted “procedural minimum” standards for democracy in several respects.3First, civil liberties are routinely violated. The phone lines of most major journalists and opposition leaders are tapped; many journalists are followed, [End Page 78] harassed, and intimidated by death threats; and several regime critics have been forced to flee the country to avoid trumped-up legal charges. In one well-known case, Baruch Ivcher, an Israeli immigrant and majority shareholder of the Channel 2 television station, was stripped of his Peruvian citizenship (and Channel 2) and forced into exile after the station began to air critical news coverage. Violent human rights abuses, though not systematic, have also taken place. The most notorious perpetrator of such abuses is the Colina Group, a paramilitary organization linked to the army and, reportedly, to top Fujimori advisor Vladimiro Montesinos. The Colina Group has been implicated in the November 1991 massacre of 15 people at Barrios Altos, the July 1992 killing of ten students at La Cantuta University, and the torture and murder of an intelligence agent believed to have leaked information about La Cantuta to the press. Although military courts convicted several officers for the La Cantuta massacre, civilian courts were blocked from investigating the case, and higher level authorities who are believed to have been involved—including Montesinos—were never investigated.
Second, electoral institutions have been politicized—if not corrupted outright—by the Fujimori government. The nominally independent National Board of Elections (JNE) has been stacked with government loyalists, and the JNE’s internal rules have been modified so that four of its five members must vote for a resolution in order for it to be adopted. Given the body’s progovernment majority, a vote against Fujimori—for example, regarding the legality of his reelection bid—is extremely unlikely. Although the current electoral authorities are unlikely to engage in systematic fraud, opposition parties lack the means to ensure their accountability and to prevent arbitrary rulings in the government’s favor. As a result, many opposition leaders fear at least some fraud in the 2000 elections.
Third, the armed forces are not fully subordinated to civilian authorities. The military regularly issues its own political proclamations, and on several occasions it has sent tanks into the streets of Lima in a none-too-subtle gesture to reinforce its positions. Moreover, the civilian authorities lack oversight capacity on issues of military budgeting, military justice, and human rights. Thus, although Fujimori is not a puppet of the military, the armed forces are more of a coalition partner than an institution subordinated to the president.
Beyond failing to meed these procedural minimum requirements for democracy, the Fujimori government has also systematically weakened what Guillermo O’Donnell has called “horizontal accountability,”4 or the capacity of autonomous legislative and legal institutions to check the power of the executive. The Congress has been transformed into a virtual rubber stamp. It has not only failed to check abuses of power by the executive; but has been an accomplice to such...