Fujimori and Chavez test the boundaries of democracy in Latin America

CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuela's presidential election is off, for now. Peru's is going ahead.

Hugo Chavez and Alberto Fujimori stand to gain from those decisions: Fujimori might get a third five-year term as Peru's president in uncontested elections and Chavez can avoid the perception of flawed balloting at a time when he's soaring in the polls.

Still, there is a down side: Running without a challenger casts a pall on Fujimori's legitimacy and Chavez's challenger for Venezuela's presidency now gets a chance to close the gap in polls.

Both Chavez and Fujimori - who many view as embodiments of strongman rule - are testing the boundaries of democracy in Latin America.

In an Andean region plagued by recession, military rumblings, high crime and political uncertainty, millions of poor people have placed their hopes for a better life in the populist presidents of Venezuela and Peru, both of whom rely heavily on the military and neither of whom have shown any great fondness for the democratic balance of power.

Inhabitants of the slums of Caracas and Lima - who have seen their standard of living plummet - often prefer bold action and tough leadership to democratic niceties. And Fujimori and Chavez, despite their failures, deliver both.

Peru and Venezuela were both supposed to hold elections this Sunday.

Venezuela's highest court suspended the vote Thursday, citing technical glitches in the vote tallying system. Peru, however, is proceeding with the vote despite fraud allegations, technical problems and the threat of international isolation and violent demonstrations.

Fujimori's challenger, economist Alejandro Toledo, is boycotting the race to protest the election board's decision to hold the vote this weekend.

The United States and Organization of American States have objected to the court decisions.

International observers said Venezuela's decision augured much better for democracy than Peru's - since it should allow officials to fix the computer glitches.

''However the election comes out in Venezuela, I would say that is a more legitimate process,'' said David Scott Palmer, a former member of the Organization of American States observation team in Peru. ''And that means Venezuela will be in a better position in regard to its own people and the international community.''

With most polls showing Chavez 15 to 20 points ahead of his nearest challenger, former Zulia state governor Francisco Arias Cardenas, he had little to gain by going ahead with flawed elections that could endanger the legitimacy of his hoped for six-year term.

Chavez, a former army officer who led a 1992 coup attempt, took office only 16 months ago but is up for re-election because of a new constitution he pushed through last year that requires public powers to be ''re-legitimized'' through new balloting.

With the elections postponed, Arias, who helped Chavez stage the coup attempt but has broken with the president, has a fresh chance to close the gap in the polls. Despite their shared history as coup plotters, Arias is seen as more moderate than Chavez, whose democratic credentials have been widely questioned.

It's hard to know why Fujimori would seek to proceed with Sunday's vote despite the costs, which included violent protests on Thursday and a warning from President Clinton on Friday.

''Free, fair and open elections are the foundation of a democratic society,'' Clinton said. ''Without them, our relationship with Peru inevitably will be affected.''

Fujimori, who's been in power for 10 years, is loathe to cave in to international pressure, possibly for fear of alienating hard-liners in his government, especially the military hierarchy. He also knows more time could mean more support for Toledo in a hotly contested race.

The doubts surrounding Venezuela's vote are technical while in Peru they are political. And if polls are correct, Peru's presidential race is much closer than Venezuela's.

But it's no accident that both Fujimori and Chavez get their most ardent support from the poor, whose numbers have swelled in Latin America - the region of the world with the most unequal distribution of wealth.

Both men came to power on anti-establishment, anti-corruption platforms. Both have vastly increased the role of the military in society. Both feel more comfortable in a slum than in a board room.

Yet Fujimori has had 10 years to show his stuff, while Chavez is just starting out.

Despite spectacular success in taming inflation and fighting rebels, Fujimori has repeatedly assaulted democratic institutions, including the 1992 temporary closure of both Congress and the Supreme Court.

The verdict is still out on Chavez, whose popularity has so far allowed him to push through radical changes through democratic channels.

It's now up to the legislature to set a new date for Venezuela's elections. Although the postponement uncovered what appears to be astonishing incompetence among electoral authorities, Venezuelan officials are hailing it as a triumph for democracy.

''The institutions are working,'' Attorney General Javier Elechiguerra said Friday. ''We should all celebrate this.''


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