HC Deb 19 April 2000 vol 348 cc235-42WH 12.54 pm
Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

Having returned from Peru only last Thursday with the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross), I am pleased to welcome this short debate. Sponsored by the British branch of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, we were invited to observe and assess the conditions of elections for the presidency and members of Congress, which took place on Sunday 9 April. We tried to observe in a spirit of neutrality and, where possible, help to make the elections in Peru fair and democratic. They held great significance for the future of democracy in that country.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry applied himself tirelessly to our responsibilities. He would agree that we were helped immeasurably by our excellent ambassador, Mr. Roger Hart, his staff at the embassy in Lima and the honorary consul in Truijillo. The visit was enjoyable and interesting, but we owe the House the same candid account that we gave to the IPU yesterday.

During the visit, it was necessary to convey to the United Kingdom our grave concerns about events as they unfolded. The ambassador made those known to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), whose letter, which was placed in the public domain in Peru, was timely and helpful. My hon. Friend shared our pressing concern to see how the election of the successful candidate for President was procured and to ensure that the process was not only free and fair, but seen to be free and fair by the people of Peru and the international community. Our priority was the electoral process rather than the candidates. We had no preference in mind.

There were times when our concerns deepened. I do not disguise the anxieties that we felt and expressed about the credibility of the campaign, the counting of the votes and the declaration of the results. Sadly, our perceptions were shared by thousands of Peruvians whose peaceful demonstrations were met with tear gas as they approached the presidential palace. They almost created an atmosphere of ineffable violence. Thankfully, that was prevented because, after days of waiting for the final result, the votes were counted and no winner was declared. There was a widespread belief that a second ballot would take place between the two front-runners, Fujimori and Toledo, but I was profoundly disturbed to discover this morning that no such announcement has been made 10 days after the polls closed.

I make the plea today that when the second election takes place, as we hope it will, it is free, fair, transparent and without harassment from any quarter. However, given our experience and that of our European colleagues, that will be no mean task. Some things must be changed next time round. The European representatives from Belgium, Great Britain and the Netherlands issued a joint statement at a press conference. It said: The state resources have been abusively and largely used to serve one candidate. The examples are countless. The Belgian delegation has specifically seen peasants being taken to a meeting of the… candidate in trucks belonging to the State. The State television is almost a monopoly of this candidate— Mr. Fujimori— This situation is not acceptable since it breaks the equity among the candidates and turns the process into a non-democratic one.

The inequality between opposition groups and the existing state machine is best manifested in the significant irregularities of the constitutional tribunal in Peru, not least the fact that the President changed the constitution that he introduced to give himself an unprecedented third term, and promptly sacked three of the five judges who ruled in an appeal court that his actions were illegal. Indeed, the whole state institutional system seems to have been organised to re-elect the President. It is common knowledge that the President relies heavily on the Peruvian armed forces and some local authorities are run by the army.

Transparencia published a document that, on page after page, gives examples of abuses and irregularities. First, Toledo's name was cut from a huge number of ballot papers with scissors, so that if people wanted to vote for him, his name simply was not there. Secondly, in a region with 169,000 electors, 175,000 ballot papers were returned.

There were repeated reports of public resources that were intended for Government social programmes being used to gain support for the President's election campaign. That cannot be right. Transparencia, a body trusted by the international community, denounced what it described as "unprecedented irregularities and harassment", including attacks against its computing systems, electricity cuts and interception of telephone lines. To his credit, the ombudsman made his reservations equally clear.

We were not alone in noting—how could we have failed to do so?—the appalling imbalance on television, radio and the media, which would have been farcical had it not been so serious. Indeed, in a carefully considered paper, issued just before the election, Mr. Terence Duffy, consultant to Electoral Reform International Services, said: Currently, Peru does possess a vigorous and extensive (if socially limited) culture of political debate expressed in some of the cable television channels such as Canal N, in the weekly magazine Caretas, and in newspapers such as El Comercio and La Republica. Regrettably, these media possess rather limited audiences, totalling no more than a few hundred thousand people, which is a gross imbalance in relation to the scale of the total Peruvian population. The Peruvian media are therefore heavily Lima-centric and possess an audience which is solely located in the highest socio-economic sectors. Regrettably, economic considerations would prevent the extensive dissemination of these media to the wider Peruvian public.

In conclusion, I thank the Minister warmly for his vigilance on these matters and ask the Government to take the initiative in ensuring European Union monitoring next time around. Even then, delivering a timely democratic election will not be easy. However, such representation and the expressed will of the international community can go a long way to achieving fair play. Never again should the election observation mission feel the need to use the expression "a culture of fear." Instead, let us hope that we can see a country with limitless potential achieve that potential in a democratic way, as I believe Peru will do.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam)

Before I call the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross), will the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) confirm that the hon. Gentleman has his consent and that of the Minister to intervene?

Mr. Clarke


1.3 pm

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

It is a pleasure to take part in the debate, brief though it is. However, I would have preferred to have the opportunity for a much longer debate so that we could have explored the matter in depth. It was a pleasure to share the visit with the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke). We did not know each other very well before we went, but we returned as firm friends. Although we did not know much about Peru before we went, we knew a fair bit about elections and we now know about Peru as a result of our visit.

We were made aware before we left of the serious problems that Peru has faced in recent years. At one stage, it had over 7,000 per cent. inflation per annum, and the country suffered from terrorism and cocaine. The last was more of a problem that Peru was exporting to the rest of the world than an internal problem, because I understand that, at one stage, it produced over 50 per cent. of the world's cocaine.

The right hon. Gentleman and I returned with a kaleidoscope of impressions, for we found a land of great contrasts the very wealthy, the very poor, heartbreaking street children, shanty towns, unemployment and modern bustling towns and cities. The people were friendly, helpful and, in many cases, very outspoken: their opinions were made plain to us from every level of society.

The right hon. Gentleman and I visited one shanty town, with a policeman or two in tow, and went into one of the huts there: they can be described in no other way. The lady of the house said that she had voted for Fujimori. Her son stated openly that he had voted for Toledo. Therefore, the people had a measure of free speech that they were not afraid to exercise, even in the presence of the police. Some of the meetings in which we took part were valuable in clarifying the conditions in the country. Given the way in which the population exercised free speech, we are both hopeful that Peru will overcome not only its economic and social problems, but its political difficulties. I want to deal now with the political problems to which my right hon. Friend referred.

It was evident to us that President Fujimori enjoys a great deal of electoral support; it would be wrong to give any other impression. People recall how desperate the nation's plight was when he first took office. He defeated, or at least suppressed, terrorism, by means that we in this country could never find acceptable, but which he and his Government considered necessary; he stopped inflation, which is now between 3 and 4 per cent. per annum; he did quite a lot on the drugs front, and is commended by the United States Government for that; he reached agreement with Chile and Ecuador on long-festering border disputes; and he has built many schools and roads, which benefit the poorest sections of society. It is a formidable list of successes, which even his most vociferous critics commended. We found only one person who was prepared to condemn him at every turn. The downside is that when he took office, he could serve only one term of five years.

President Fujimori changed the constitution to allow two terms, and is now claiming the next term as his second, if he wins, as it is under the new constitution and his first term does not count, as it was under the old one. That was at the root of much of the opposition to him, for he is perceived by many as breaking his word and violating the constitution.

It was made plain to us that he had used doubtful methods to achieve his goal of running again and then attempting to secure election. The allegations seemed to us to be valid. Some are the ones that the right hon. Gentleman referred to; others are slightly different. The first is that the campaign against the other principal candidates was an utterly ruthless and vicious programme of vilification, which succeeded in destroying them one after the other. Mr. Toledo was a late-emerging candidate.

We were told that $3,000 made certain that any one of the tabloid newspapers published the stories, which were personally written with the headlines, the story and the editorial and then read on the street corners. The cost of television propaganda for opposition candidates was set so high that they could not afford it, and the stations that were willing to be even-handed ran into difficulties over advertising revenue from Government and other sources and increasing demands for unpaid tax.

Opposition rallies in other towns were disrupted by power cuts, land-line breakdowns, power failures to mobile phones and the closure of access roads on one pretext or another, so that folk could not get to the rallies. In addition, the poor who supported Fujimori got food aid, and 800,000 people have been promised a plot of land on which to build a house. All those are powerful inducements.

It was also made clear to us that many judges had been sacked and replaced by provisional judges; there were other official bodies where the membership simply screamed "rigging". There were questions about the accuracy of the electoral register. We were unhappy about all that and believed that it was not possible for the president to win on the first ballot, and that a second round would eventually become necessary. There is no guarantee that Fujimori would lose in the second round. He might win, even in an honest ballot, and every hon. Member knows that elections are difficult to predict.

Time does not permit me to continue, except to say that Peru is a wonderful country, full of men and women with high hopes. We wish them well and hope that the bright future that beckons will be achieved. They seem to have created a formidable array of institutions, procedures and documentation to ensure that fraud could not occur, but they left gaping holes in the process into which votes disappear and do not emerge in the same form.

Finally, I thank our ambassador and staff who were admirable in every way and looked after us very well indeed. I thank also the ambassadors of Belgium and the Netherlands, and their parliamentary representatives, whose company we enjoyed and whose report on their experiences we are happy to accept.

1.10 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. John Battle)

It is customary to congratulate the hon. Member who secures an Adjournment debate. In this case, more than congratulations are in order.I do not know how an Adjournment debate is secured in Peru—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the Minister is not implying that the systems in the House echo those in Peru in any way.

Mr. Battle

I suggest that the efficiency with which we can communicate speaks volumes.

The debate is timely, as it keeps the spotlight on the situation in Peru and keeps up the pressure. That is precisely what Adjournment debates should do and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) and the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) on bringing the matter to our attention while it is alive.

I congratulate them both on their valuable contribution to the IPU election monitoring mission to Peru. The telegrams that we received from our ambassador reflected the fact that they were a credit to Britain. Their work and the way in which they participated enhanced our parliamentary reputation, which is the purpose of the IPU. It was impressive to receive the feedback from the embassy as the situation unfolded. Monitoring should allow a snapshot to be taken to assess how the process is doing. The reports were on my desk during the process and they were important to enable us to react and to make a contribution to the process.

I am also grateful to my right hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman for their kind words about our ambassador and his staff. The system was working at its best and the job was well done.

Outside the Chamber in Westminster Hall there is an exhibition on parliamentary work and elections. It reminds all of us why we are here and that, despite our 2,500 years of history, parliamentary democracy is not as advanced as it should be. Of the 30 elections taking place in the world this year, 16 are taking place in countries that have never had any form of democratic election. The process is relatively new and it is important that in places such as Peru, which has had democratic elections since 1980, we strengthen the process and ensure that it is not undermined. The work of my right hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman as observers was crucial.

Throughout the Peruvian election process, the United Kingdom played a leading role in calling for free, fair and transparent elections. We financed two visits to Peru by representatives of Electoral International Reform Services. Reports of those visits highlighted worrying deficiencies in the electoral process at that time. In particular, the reports drew attention to the misuse of state resources, including food aid for party political purposes and manipulation of the media, to which reference has been made. We gave copies of those reports to the Peruvian Government and to members of the IPU delegation in Peru, and circulated them widely at international level. The spotlight was turned on events, so that matters could be improved.

We supported the activities of the office of the Peruvian ombudsman, Mr. Santistevan, in the election campaign. Our Government contributed some £20,000 to his election-monitoring mission. Since March 1998, we have contributed more than £140,000 to the cost of important work and research conducted by his office. He visited me just before the election, and we discussed that process. He expressed certain fears and spoke of the need to keep the spotlight on the election process to ensure a fair outcome. We will continue to support his activities in the run up to the second round of voting.

Last week, I met members of the inter-agency group on Peru, with whom we have strong and established ties. The group consists of a number of non-governmental organisations, including the Peru support group and Oxfam. The meeting followed an earlier exchange between members of that group and officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Latin American and Caribbean department. In other words, consultation with people who were familiar with events on the ground has been vital throughout this process.

Last week's discussion, in which I outlined our concerns about irregularities highlighted by independent observers, proved useful. As a result of that meeting and information received from those observers, I released a statement that expressed those concerns and underlined our view that a second round of voting was desirable and sensible. A copy of that statement was given to the Peruvian authorities by the British ambassador in Lima.

On the morning of 12 April, Jose Portillo, the head of the official electoral authority of the national office of electoral processes, announced that, with 97.68 per cent. of votes counted, Fujimori had 49.84 per cent. and Toledo had 40.31 per cent. He added that, with so few votes remaining, the "50 per cent. plus one" target for an outright first round victory could not be attained by any one candidate, so there would have to be a second round play-off. He explained that his office would not be able to deliver a final report on 100 per cent. of the results until official vote registration documents from polling stations abroad were received. Although a similar system operates in this country, receipt of those reports has been subject to considerable delay.

The head of the official electoral authority suggested that the national election board would have to resolve pending challenges to certain results registered in official vote registration documents. Again, such challenges occur in our elections. If there are squabbles over spoilt ballot papers and so on, agents sort them out there and then. The problem should not take long to resolve but, following the interim result of 12 April, there has been no official announcement of the final result, so a date has yet to be set for the second round. I share the concerns of my right hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman about that. Although I am confident that a second round will take place, I have instructed our ambassador to raise our concerns with the Peruvian authorities and the national office for electoral processes. In other words, the ambassador will advise them to get on with it.

We played a leading role in preparing European Union statements that expressed concern about the election campaign and developments on polling day. Prior to the elections, we helped to draw up the statement by the European Commission of Human Rights in Geneva on 24 March. It stated: The EU continues to be disturbed by the decline in Peru of the rule of law and democratic institutions, including deterioration in the electoral process. That reflects precisely the impressions that the hon. Member for East Londonderry outlined during the debate.

We also took the lead in issuing an EU statement condemning the withdrawal of Peru from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights last year. We made it clear that we did not think that that withdrawal was a good move. On 15 February, EU ambassadors, including the British ambassador in Lima, issued a public statement calling on the Peruvian authorities to take the measures necessary to implement important recommendations set out in the independent reports on the electoral process. We also initiated an EU statement on 7 April, expressing our deep concern over aspects of the election campaign and calling for procedures on polling day to be free and fair and to conform to international standards.

In the preliminary work leading up to the day of the election, we endeavoured, through the EU, to keep the international spotlight focused on the process to ensure that it was carried out correctly. It has worked imperfectly at best, but we must move on. We shall continue to work with our EU colleagues to impress on the Peruvian authorities the need to meet international standards as the second round of voting approaches. They now have an opportunity to get it right.

The Peruvian elections were discussed at the EU Latin America working party meeting on 17 April. I was asked earlier whether we could take the initiative, and I am happy to confirm to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston that it was agreed at that meeting that the EU will be sending an observer mission. As part of that, the United Kingdom again plans to send observers, and I hope that my right hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman will once more be able to contribute in some way. It is important that we should keep up the good work.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry suggested that it would be better to have a wider debate on the economic, social and political context of development in Peru. I, too, would welcome that. In the short time available to us today, we have had to focus on the election process. That will be an on-going state of affairs until the second round, and we must keep a critical eye on it.

In relation to drugs, the Government are committed to tackling the global drug trafficking problem. Last week, we met President Pastrana of Colombia for an in-depth discussion about working more closely together to tackle international drug trafficking. That is a shared responsibility between producer and consumer countries. We have work to do on the streets and in the clinics here, as well as trying to eliminate production by finding alternative crops to coca and heroin.

We welcome Peru's commitment to its national drugs plan, and we are actively involved in bilateral and multilateral counter-drugs projects. In January 2000, I announced a further £500,000 contribution to a UN programme to monitor coca leaf production in Peru. Its aim is to discover the extent of production and to encourage a shift to alternative crops, providing peasant farmers with a livelihood while removing the potential for the cocaine trade.

We also keep a close eye on human rights in Peru. We continue to monitor closely the human rights situation and to raise human rights issues with the Peruvian Government whenever suitable opportunities arise. We press them whenever we consider that they are not adhering to their international obligations. For example, when they withdrew from the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, we joined our European Union partners in pressing them to rejoin. In March this year, at the 56th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, we joined our EU partners in issuing a statement expressing concern at the decline in the rule of law and democratic institutions in Peru, including the deterioration in the electoral process.

In conclusion, democratic politics is a project. We try to deepen participation in democracy. As the posters outside in Westminster Hall demonstrate, there is a history to the development of democracy. Not long ago, only men could vote in Britain, and the franchise was extended to women only relatively recently. We must look for new ways of deepening our democracy, and increase the extent to which popular participation is built up from the base in all societies. We have a history of democracy dating back hundreds of years. I am proud of the fact that my colleagues have been to Peru to participate as monitors in its election process. Their work has been exemplary, and it stands as part of the tradition of campaigning to deepen democracy.

We share a common concern that, in Peru, democracy is very new and needs underpinning, supporting and encouraging; it does not need undermining. If we feel that it has been undermined, we have a duty to point that out. We look forward to the second round of voting, and we shall continue to monitor developments very closely during the electoral campaign. We shall encourage the Peruvian authorities to ensure that the conditions are in place for free, fair and transparent elections that are dominated not by fear but by the free decisions of the people participating in them. It is important for Peru to move forward democratically, not backwards. We shall continue to play a full diplomatic role in ensuring that that happens, and we are grateful to our colleagues for their work during the past few weeks.

1.26 pm

Sitting suspended.