'Today, We Are Finally Free'

In the 10 years he ruled Peru, Alberto Fujimori built a reputation as a man of surprises. His last two weeks in office were no exception. First Fujimori duped the journalists camped outside the presidential palace in Lima by dispatching a police convoy to a dusty town south of the capital. Reporters followed, expecting another episode of cops and robbers in the search for fugitive former presidential adviser Vladimiro Montesinos. With the press distracted, Fujimori boarded the presidential jet and fled the country. Days later, holed up in a posh Tokyo hotel, he dropped the bomb: he was resigning as president of Peru and staying in Japan indefinitely. After Fujimori declared himself the winner of elections in May, amid fierce protests and charges of fraud, many observers predicted he wouldn't serve out his five-year term. Few thought the end would come so soon.

Not content to be rid of Fujimori, lawmakers fired him--on grounds of "moral incapacity." With the resignations of Peru's two vice presidents, the top office fell to Valentin Paniagua. The constitutional lawyer and veteran politician was elected president of Congress after legislators rebelled against the Fujimorista head earlier in the week. As he was sworn in last Wednesday, a familiar protest chant rang through Congress: "It's fallen, the dictatorship has fallen."

The question now is what will replace it. Paniagua has just four months before new elections in April to turn Peru from a dysfunctional autocratic state into one primed for democracy. (The next president will take office in July.) "The challenge," says political analyst Santiago Pedraglio, "is to restore confidence in every sense of the word: confidence in the government, its institutions, the armed forces, the intelligence service, as well as investor confidence in the economy." Paniagua seems well suited for the job. His Popular Action party has experience overseeing transitions from autocracy. In 1980 party leader Fernando Belaunde--chased from the presidency in a 1968 military coup--roared back to become Peru's first democratically elected president after 12 years of military rule. Paniagua served as Justice minister in Belaunde's first administration. He has since led a scandal-free career as a principled, low-profile politician. And in what observers say is a positive sign, last week he made former U.N. secretary-general Javier Perez de Cuellar prime minister.

Paniagua's chief objective will be to ready Peru for clean elections. A few of the most tainted electoral officials have already been removed, but a further purge is required. The new government will also have to dismantle the country's intelligence apparatus and ensure candidates have equal access to the media. Those tasks will be difficult because Fujimori dismantled practically every institution in the country after his 1992 "self-coup."

Still, it wasn't enough. All Fujimori's power couldn't save him after a video released two months ago showed Montesinos apparently bribing an opposition politician. Fujimori fired his adviser and called new elections, hoping to cling to the presidency until April--and to chances for a political comeback later. When Montesinos returned to Peru after being denied asylum in Panama, Fujimori led a theatrical hunt for the fugitive. Then Swiss authorities revealed Montesinos was under investigation for money laundering--with some $48 million dollars in Swiss bank accounts. That led many Peruvians to speculate that the real object of Fujimori's frenzied search was any evidence that might link him to Montesinos's dealings.

Fujimori denied involvement till the end. But some experts believe his resignation abroad was an attempt to escape possible investigations at home. If so, it's unlikely to work. Fujimori's enemies say the real task of Paniagua's government is to thoroughly investigate all indications of corruption, even if that means the former president himself. "It is essential to remove the cancer of corruption in order to lay the foundations for economic development and a government of national unity," says Fernando Olivera, head of the Independent Moralizing Front, the political party that released the Montesinos video. But other Peruvians are looking to the future. "Today we are finally free," said Sonia Machado as she watched Paniagua greet a roaring crowd from the balcony of the government palace in Lima after his inauguration. "The Peruvian people have fought for democracy. Now we have to make it work." And the clock is ticking.