IT'S the oldest of political seductions: The strongman, the man on the white horse, endowed with extraordinary vision and courage and unhindered by the messy entanglements of democracy, takes government into his hands to solve a society's problems. Peru's President Alberto Fujimori is the latest political leader to succumb to the siren song of authoritarianism.
That Mr. Fujimori is Peru's elected head of state makes his seizure of power Sunday no less a coup than if he were an outsider. By suspending the Constitution, dissolving parliament and the judiciary, jailing opponents, and censoring the media, Fujimori mounted an attack on legitimate government and human rights in Peru. His close alliance with the Army removes the action just a short step from a classic Latin American military mugging.
Conceded, Peru is in shambles. The performance of its institutions since the nation shook off military rule in 1980 is hardly an endorsement for popular government. The splintered, wrangling legislature has been ineffective in coping with the country's desperate poverty and its other economic and social problems. The judiciary, rife with corruption and intimidated by terrorists, provides only turnstile justice. The government is under violent siege by the region's most brutal insurgency, the Maoist Shini ng Path, and by narco-traffickers.
Yet in trying to cope with Peru's litany of distress, Fujimori has chosen the wrong course. Even if one accepts his claims that he is trying to save Peru's democracy from itself, Fujimori's action will only delay the maturing of democratic institutions and will heighten the public's cynicism. Once imposed, martial law tends to become permanent - as in Marcos's Philippines. Fujimori's announced timetable for return to democracy is still too tenuous to cause much hopefulness.
The United States and the Organization of American States rightly have deplored Fujimori's self-coup. But their support of democracy in Peru must go beyond lofty rhetoric. Washington and the OAS must take firm steps to reinstate democracy, and - beyond that - they must search for additional ways to help prevent Peruvian democracy, once restored, from spiraling further into chaos.