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New Chance for Peru's Chief to Take Reins
DAVID GONZALEZ . NY Times . 13 january 2002

LIMA, Peru, Jan. 11 — After months of plummeting approval ratings and ridicule over his personal life, President Alejandro Toledo was every bit the chief executive when he cut short his vacation and rushed to Lima to comfort the nation after a fireworks blast killed hundreds of people in an overcrowded shopping district.

He was a constant presence, whether climbing atop a fire truck and ordering that all fireworks be banned or going to the hospital to donate blood. His government swiftly said it would pay for burials, increase the fire department's budget, provide land to the survivors and even pay for DNA analysis of victims' remains.

Perhaps he went too far, because it was unclear how the government would cover the costs. Moreover, the snickers came quickly that the one DNA test he would not pay for was his own, a reference to a lingering paternity suit.

The joke, in a way, underscores the problem he has faced since he was narrowly elected to a five-year term as president last July. His early initiatives to lift the country have been overshadowed by distractions over his peccadilloes and by his hasty promises that are later scaled back.

Yet those problems suddenly seem minor in comparison with Argentina's meltdown, and indeed with Peru's recent past. Political experts say that Mr. Toledo now has the opportunity to sort things out and improve his standing and effectiveness. This week, he consulted with political and civic leaders to forge a consensus that would form the base of his legislative programs. The opposition, while strong, is listening.

"Toledo has some breathing room in the sense that the opposition activists are not squeezing," said Santiago Pedraglio, a political analyst. "There are a lot of examples in Latin America of governments brought down by internal political crises. Here, there is a certain consensus among the opposition that they cannot squeeze too hard because a crisis with Toledo is a Pandora's box in which nobody knows what would come out."

The immediate and real problems are in the streets teeming with desperate vendors or the ramshackle houses that line the hillsides. With more than half the country living in poverty and facing rampant unemployment, Mr. Toledo has raised hopes with his promises to provide 400,000 new jobs and improve housing and health.

Those poor neighborhoods are also the source of the greatest dissatisfaction and impatience with Mr. Toledo, said Alfredo Torres, the director general of Apoyo, a public opinion polling company. They have pushed his support down to about 30 percent last month from 59 percent when he took office. Mr. Torres said the frustration felt among the poor reflected a similar feeling in Latin America that jobs and opportunity had yet to trickle down after years of open markets and privatization.

"In Latin America, all leaders are low in their numbers," Mr. Torres said. "It is part of a larger problem of a certain frustration with an economic model that has not allowed for a rapid exit from poverty."

At the same time, Mr. Toledo's advisers and ministers said the country's debt load, risk ratings and investment climate were better than those of its neighbors. The country is poised to improve, they said, projecting a modest 4 percent growth in the economy this year.

"What we have done is stabilize the place," said Prime Minister Roberto Danino. "Nobody can say that we are not heading upward."

But the downward trajectory of Mr. Toledo's approval ratings at times has obscured advances. While Peru has moved toward true civilian control of the military, included diverse ideological views in government, and made some strides in easing poverty, Mr. Toledo's own missteps have captured public attention.

In recent months he made headlines for giving himself a hefty raise, employing a nephew and being a fixture at trendy restaurants. His image problems were compounded by his tendency to make campaign- style promises that advisers would later persuade him were impossible and to bicker with his own political party. Although no one thing has been fatal, the result is a public image of less than steady leadership.

"Even in his response to the fire, he acted like a candidate making promises," Mr. Torres said. "But he is no longer a presidential candidate, and people are going to ask to see results."

In more recent weeks, Mr. Toledo has scaled back his active social life and projected an image of seriousness, and his leadership after the fire was praised by many.

His meetings with various political players and civic groups are the next step toward enacting programs that create jobs and ease poverty. Mr. Danino, the prime minister, said it was all part of laying a new foundation after years of corrupt rule by former President Alberto K. Fujimori.

"We have to educate people that democracy is not a switch they can turn on and off," Mr. Danino said. "All presidents take a certain amount of time to change the script and go from being a campaigner to being chief executive. These first 150 days have served us well for that." Some political leaders said Mr. Toledo must soon stop consulting and begin making decisions and proposing solutions or run the risk of having done little more than engaging in a delaying, public relations ploy.

"We should already have an agenda and concrete proposals," said Lourdes Flores, the leader of the center-right National Unity party. "We need clarity."

Elections will be held in November for mayors and the newly created post of regional, or departmental, president, and that may complicate Mr. Toledo's life. Unless he is able to impose some order on his own party, political analysts said Mr. Toledo could lose standing.

Just as uncertain is what might come out of the pending trials of Vladimiro L. Montesinos, the former spymaster and power behind Mr. Fujimori. Mr. Toledo's rise to power came in the wake of the crisis set off by the discovery of hundreds of videotapes that showed Mr. Montesinos bribing judges, bankers, media executives and politicians.

While his influence and power are believed to be vastly diminished, Mr. Montesinos could still stir up trouble using his most potent remaining weapon: his information about who accepted his generous bribes.

Until now, Mr. Montesinos has maintained a degree of control over the process, deciding whom he sees and what tantalizing tidbits he releases. In the trial, the government faces the challenge of showing that it is in control and minimizing the influence of any irresponsible, but potentially harmful, claims he may make in his defense.

"Like many Mafia chiefs in other places where the government is weak, Montesinos has a degree of influence direct or indirect over subjects, willing or unwilling," said Gustavo Gorriti, an investigative journalist. "As a consequence, he is an active player in the political life of the country. This will be the most difficult year for Toledo."