He's revered by many for smashing the Shining Path leftist rebels, toppling hyperinflation, and bringing lights, water, and schools to the poor. But his authoritarian style is reminiscent of South America's past caudillos who left no space for democratic institutions to flourish.
Now, in the final week of his quest for a controversial third five-year term, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori finds his bid increasingly questioned. Critics here and abroad say the lopsided campaign full of "dirty tricks" risks delivering a fraudulent election this Sunday.
The Organization of American States said on Friday that the government's failure to address free-election doubts could cause it to "disqualify" the results. The Carter Center in Atlanta found the campaign "irreparably damaged" in its final observation report earlier this month. The US Senate is considering a cut in economic aid if observers find the election failed basic international democratic standards.
Meanwhile, Peruvian political analysts say a campaign using a subtly but heavily controlled press and state resources exemplifies a leader more interested in holding on to power than in promoting democratic principles.
But Mr. Fujimori, who in a decade at Peru's helm has earned a reputation for getting things done - good and bad - with little regard for anyone's checks and balances, seems to be loving every minute of the scuffle.
"They tell us Peru is no democracy, but in Peru we know that democracy is more than a carnival of promises and privileges for the few," he shouts from atop his "Fujimobile" - a kind of modified milk truck with railings on top to accommodate musicians and a microphone-wielding president.
"Democracy doesn't mean sticking a vote in a box," continues this pedagogical president. "It's about rights - the right to a good education, the right to health, and the fundamental Peruvian right to live free from terrorism!"
When Fujimori engineered a new interpretation of the Constitution to allow himself a third consecutive term - a move many experts here still consider illegal - it was not the first time he raised eyebrows. The take-no-prisoners president squashed the fearsome El Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla group in part thanks to regional emergency declarations giving his government expanded powers. And he closed down Congress in 1992 to tidy up his path of action.
Despite a decade of democratization throughout Latin America, some observers worry that Fujimori's example could find admirers elsewhere in the region. Others insist it already has, and point to Venezuela's failed coup-leader-turned-president, Hugo Chvez.
"If Fujimori wins again, it's a negative example of how someone remains in power by violating democratic rules," says Lima political analyst Santiago Pedraglio. "I think the United States understands this [risk]."
The US is not eager for a row with Peru. Under Fujimori, the country has followed the market-oriented economic reforms the US recommends, resolved old border disputes with Ecuador and Chile, and has cooperated in reducing illicit narcotics cultivation. But the US also has a broader interest in supporting its view that authoritarian governments put the region's long-term stability at risk, US officials say.
Yet as Fujimori prowls Lima's slums, drawing out enthusiastic crowds like an ice-cream truck on a summer's day with his short, off-the-cuff speeches and Peruvian cumbia music, most of the response is positive.
On the dusty streets of San Juan de Lurigancho, a collection of the kind of marginalized urban settlements that are a Fujimori stronghold, the president basks in the cheers and laughter of groups of mostly women, children, and unemployed young men. In response to the presidential tutorial in democracy, the crowd roars, "Chino yes, others no!" using the endearment, "the Chinaman" for their president of Japanese descent.
"He brought us stability, he helps the poor, and we risk losing that with anyone else," says Antonio Lerma, a shirtless young man in worn soccer shorts who works in construction when he can find a job. "He's the only president who has worked for the people, putting a roof over our heads, providing milk for the children, building schools, while the others only lined their pockets," says Sonia Camacho, who sells homemade foods in Lima. "There's no one else we can trust."
Yet even in the slums that heavily favor him, dissident voices surface, suggesting why Sunday's vote - where Fujimori's strongest challenger is economist and business-school administrator Alejandro Toledo - could be close enough to force a runoff.
"Down with the dictatorship!" yells an elderly man as the Fujimobile passes him on the street. An adolescent boy waves, but then shows off his "Toledo for President" T-shirt with one hand, while giving the thumbs-up with the other.
"I came out to see the president, but I'm not voting for him," says Guillermo Diestro, in Lima from the regional city of Arequipa. "I don't like all the dirty actions against Toledo, and I like the fact that Toledo is an economist talking about creating jobs, but mostly I think two terms is enough for anybody."
The "dirty tricks" people refer to here became more prevalent as the campaign got underway. When Peru's ombudsman, Jorge Santistevan, opined that a third Fujimori term was unconstitutional, television and a cheap, sensationalist "penny press" spent weeks attacking Peru's "people's defender" as a communist and a traitor.
As opposition candidates emerged, the same press relentlessly savaged them, ironically making way for Mr.Toledo to move ahead. As recently as January, he had only 4 percent support in most polls.
In an interview with the Monitor, Fujimori argued that because Peru has a free press, his government can do nothing about the way the press approaches the news. "I love newspapers; I read them as much as I can," he said. But media analysts say the government over the last four years has maneuvered control of television through actions against unfavorable owners, and has created the now-prodigious penny press through generous advertising in favorable publications.
The result is that until recently very little of any candidate but Fujimori was seen on TV. A few women working in the network of neighborhood kitchens and "glass of milk" programs Fujimori has created claim public money is being used to transport busloads of women to Fujimori rallies and even to pay them a few dollars to attend.
Other critics claim the government's election-oversight agency has been turned into a giant Fujimori machine. The strongest evidence of that is a scandal that broke last month over accusations that many of the 1 million signatures amassed to back Fujimori's candidacy were forged - in part by officials within the election agency. Several agency officials lost their jobs over the scandal, but an investigation into the allegations has proceeded at a snail's pace and produced no public findings.
Other democracy advocates worry that the voter's right to a secret vote will be violated by a practice - uncovered in other elections - called the "carousel." The clever ruse consists of government backers, often from the military, giving the voter a previously marked ballot to vote with, and demanding that the voter produce the unused ballot issued inside upon leaving the polling site as proof that the "good" ballot was used.
"People don't believe their vote is secret, they think the state will know, and that is a tremendous pressure," says Rafael Roncagliolo, secretary general of the Transparency election watchdog organization in Lima. "The gravest aspect of this process is that people have lost confidence in their own elections."
In his campaign appearances, Fujimori now emphasizes job creation, reflecting what is clearly the top issue in Peru. Even the government accepts that unemployment is in double digits and underemployment affects more than half the population. But Fujimori couples his talk of jobs with a reminder that quick job-boosting schemes risk reviving the inflation that devastated Peru's poor and middle classes in the 1980s. "Others promise to create jobs, but you won't fall for that trick," he tells his audiences, "because you remember the days when the government spending to create jobs also gave us hyperinflation."
In the Monitor interview, Fujimori said he decided to seek a third term when other candidates began touting economic schemes that "would set us back to where we were before this government." A third term might give him the opportunity to develop other leaders of his stripe to take his place, he said, but right now, he added, "There are none."
The unfortunate part of such a conclusion is that a leader who after a decade in power could have left office widely acclaimed for stand-out accomplishments, will now, win or lose next Sunday, find himself as much challenged as he has been acclaimed.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society