Peru's president poised for big first-round win

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Latin America Correspondent

Alberto Fujimori, dubbed "The Chinaman" when he emerged from obscurity five years ago, is likely to overwhelm Javier Perez de Cuellar, former United Nations secretary-general, in tomorrow's Peruvian presidential elections but could face a closer run-off in June.

Mr Fujimori, 56, the son of Japanese immigrants, is tipped to win at least 47 per cent of the vote, double that of his main rival, but he needs 50 per cent to avoid a run-off, in which Mr Perez de Cuellar, 75, could garner wider anti-Fujimori sentiment. Even if Mr Fujimori wins a second five-year term, polls suggest he will lose control of parliament but that is unlikely to worry the man who shut it three years ago when it stood in the way of his economic and anti-terrorist policies.

"I know how to get things done," was his unofficial slogan as he stomped around the provinces and even got on his bike to surprise residents of Lima suburbs. His critics retorted: "So do all dictators."

With populist language, Mr Fujimori, a little-known agricultural engineer, swept aside the writer Mario Vargas Llosa in the 1990 election but provoked world-wide criticism when he dismissed parliament in April 1992 to impose emergency measures over the economy and to counter the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas. After the arrest later that year of the guerrilla chief, Abimael Guzman, popular support saw the election of a new, pro- Fujimori parliament, which conveniently passed a law allowing the President to run again.

When Mr Fujimori's wife, Susana Higuchi, threatened last year to run against him, parliament passed the "Susana law", barring spouses of sitting president from running. Mrs Higuchi said she would file for divorce but her husband's friends on the National Electoral Board rejected her presidential candidacy on convoluted technicalities. When the former First Lady later fainted during a hunger strike, the President was seen on television the same day dining on seafood and white wine. It did not seem to harm his popularity.

Peru's border war with Ecuador earlier this year, which Ecuador said was blatant election campaigning, appears to have done the Peruvian incumbent little good. His poll ratings have slipped, despite nightly images of him wading across jungle rivers with his troops, due to a perception that he exaggerated Peruvian successes.

Mr Fujimori is credited with getting the economy on the rails, slashing inflation and crushing Shining Path. Despite the recent arrest of a former Guzman aide, Shining Path is not dead. It stepped up attacks last month and has tried to disrupt tomorrow's election by blocking distribution of voting papers in some provinces. The anti-terrorism police say they expect "major attacks" by the guerrillas.

Mr Perez de Cuellar, winding up his campaign in Cuzco, called Mr Fujimori autocratic and spoke of "liberating Peru" and of "authentic democracy". The President had unfairly used his position to campaign: ``It's as if you're in a 200-yard race and somebody gets a 50-yard start.''

And Mr Perez de Cuellar has another problem, as a Lima-based European diplomat said: "Fujimori speaks the language of the people. Perez de Cuellar spent a decade [at the UN] perfecting the art of saying nothing in the most elaborate language possible."