PRESIDENT Alberto Fujimori of Peru startled the world a few weeks ago when he backed a coup against his own government. Given his dependence on the military, dating from his campaign, and the close scrutiny of his advisers, the coup could have been anticipated. Indeed, some Peruvian journalists had been warning of its imminent possibility. What is not yet clear is whether President Fujimori is a puppet of the coup or its supreme commander.
This civil-military marriage of convenience began when Fujimori first emerged as a serious challenge to the political future of conservative writer Mario Vargas Llosa. Outgoing President Alan Garcia, a staunch foe of the conservatives, asked the National Intelligence Service (NIS) to assist Fujimori's campaign. The NIS, a branch of the military headed by Gen. Edwin Diaz, provided polling services, advisers, and other resources to the political neophyte's campaign.
Having surprised everyone by winning the election, Fujimori chose to work and live in the Military Circle, an exclusive Army officer's club, out of reach of the press between the election and his inauguration. Upon assuming the presidency, he appointed military and intelligence officials to key posts, including the ministries of justice, defense, and interior.
Fujimori appointed Vladimiro Montesinos, a former Army captain turned lawyer, as a principal political adviser and deputy director of the NIS. Mr. Montesinos, who had previously worked in the NIS, was discharged from the Army in 1976 after being accused of selling military secrets to foreign powers. Returning to civilian life to practice law, Montesinos counted several known drug traffickers among his clients. He gained the spotlight when he defended Fujimori during the campaign against accusations of fr audulent real estate dealings. The paperwork in that case was mysteriously lost and the charges quietly dropped. Montesinos is thought to be a key architect of the coup.
Fujimori's alliance with the military and his authoritarian style created tensions with the Congress. He resolved many national policy issues without consulting the legislative body, the most controversial being the treaty with the United States on narcotics control. He and his advisers clashed with Congress in January when the representatives overturned four of the president's new laws on pacification and modified 12 others.
Had they become law, these measures would have given the armed forces absolute powers over civil-judicial procedures, universities, schools, and other institutions and would have led to serious curtailment of human rights in Peru.
After the Congress opposed the most extreme of his new laws, the president renewed his "Congress-bashing" campaign in earnest. He successfully made the Congress the scapegoat for the public's anger at widespread corruption in state institutions and political parties, paving the way for his coup.
Perhaps the last straw for Fujimori was a planned congressional investigation to look into corruption charges against Fujimori's brother and sister-in-law, who were suspected of misusing foreign donations to the poor for personal gain. Also contributing to presidential unease were disclosures in the foreign press of collusion between the Peruvian military and drug traffickers.
The president's retreat from democracy brings Peru a step closer to civil war. Fujimori has done exactly what the Sendero Luminoso ("Shining Path") guerrillas have wanted all along. The insurgents' strategy is to polarize Peruvian society so deeply that only massive violence will resolve the conflict. In keeping with that strategy, they - along with the military - have targeted community activists, human rights workers, and journalists in order to prevent the populace from seeking forms of democratic org anization independent of both the government and the guerrillas.
Had Fujimori supported such independent and organized expressions of democracy, had he worked with the Congress in preventing the erosion of democratic social and political institutions, the power of the terrorists would have been severely diminished. The president needs the military to survive, but the military can do without him once a civilian fig leaf is no longer required to conceal a military regime. That moment may not be far away.