Peru opposition gains control of Congress from Fujimori supporters

LIMA, Peru - Opposition lawmakers wrested control of Congress from President Alberto Fujimori on Thursday, further undermining his grasp on power and raising the possibility he will be forced from office on grounds of ''moral incapacity.''

Valentin Paniagua won the post of Congress president, defeating Fujimori loyalist Ricardo Marcenaro in a 64-51 vote. The post was left vacant after another staunch ally of the president, Martha Hildebrandt, was voted out Monday.

Opposition lawmakers burst into applause as the count showed Paniagua moving ahead. His election gave opposition forces control of Congress for the first time since 1992.

Paniagua said he would not stand in the way of debate on a motion to force Fujimori from office for ''moral incapacity'' - as permitted by the Constitution.

''The request to vacate the presidency of the republic is a measure that the Congress can adopt when there are certain objective circumstances that the Congress must judge,'' he told reporters. It was unclear when the motion, presented Monday, would be considered.

But Marcenaro said he was sure the opposition would not try to force Fujimori from office. ''We believe they understand that this would only make things worse,'' he said.

Congressman Daniel Estrada, of the left-leaning Union for Peru party, which holds three seats in the 120-member legislature, said the national crisis could only be solved if Fujimori was ousted.

Fujimori's government showed signs of disarray Thursday amid a corruption scandal revolving around his fugitive ex-spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos.

Fujimori was widely criticized for leaving Peru on Monday to attend the Pacific Rim trade summit in Brunei, and his trip sparked a rumor Wednesday that he was seeking political asylum in Malaysia. Fujimori aides and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad denied the rumor.

Fujimori reportedly headed to Tokyo on Thursday to visit his son, who lives there, and to secure a loan for Peru from the Japanese government.

It was Montesinos' appearance in a leaked video apparently bribing an opposition congressman that forced Fujimori's decision in September to step down after elections next year.

But as evidence mounts against Montesinos, pressure is building for Fujimori to resign before the April 8 elections.

''President Fujimori is morally incapacitated to manage the transition from dictatorship to democracy,'' said opposition leader Alejandro Toledo, speaking to Peru's radio station Radioprogramas from France. ''Fujimori could fall tomorrow, or the day after. I don't think he is going to last until Dec. 31.''

Toledo, who boycotted the May presidential runoff against Fujimori alleging the vote was being rigged, said he planned to run again in April, hopefully as a unity candidate with the support of Peru's various opposition parties.

Montesinos is under investigation for laundering at least $58 million in foreign bank accounts. He faces criminal complaints in Peru ranging from directing state-sponsored death squads to skimming profits from the narcotics trades during his 10 years as Fujimori's top aide.

Fujimori was first elected in 1990 and was handed a landslide re-election in 1995 from Peruvians, grateful to him for halting guerrilla violence and ending the economic chaos of the 1980s. His victory to a third five-year term this year was marred by irregularities and widespread fraud allegations.


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