A YEAR after Peru's surprise suspension of democracy, it is time for the United States and the international community to abandon their opposition to President Alberto Fujimori's efforts to reform the system from the top down.
However fragile and imperfect, and amidst daunting problems, a new kind of democracy is emerging in Peru - one more directly connected to the people and more popular as well.
A year ago today, Mr. Fujimori, the independent candidate unexpectedly elected in 1990 over novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, announced the "temporary" dissolution of Congress, the Justice Ministry, and the General Accounting Office, and assumed emergency powers. At the time this autogolpe, or coup against onself, seemed to make little sense. The economy appeared to be improving. International banks and foreign governments were poised to provide substantial aid, and some already had begun to flow. The opposit ion-controlled Congress and the president had worked tolerably well together. The Shining Path guerrillas posed a significant challenge, but democratic reforms seemed to be the best bulwark against their advance. The Justice Ministry was a travesty, but could be remedied short of abandoning democratic process.
Predictably, most of the world reacted in horror and prepared for the worst: a repressive dictatorship and greater chances of a Shining Path victory. In Peru, however, the president's favorable rating in weekly opinion polls skyrocketed. In hindsight, worst-case forecasts from analysts - including this one - were wrong.
Over the past 12 months, the Fujimori administration has put Peru's government on a sounder footing in some significant ways. The most dramatic development was the capture in September of Shining Path's founder, leader, and ideologue Abimael Guzman Reynoso. His speedy trial, conviction, and sentencing to life imprisonment without parole by a special military tribunal authorized by May 1992 decrees gave the government a desperately needed psychological boost at a critical moment. Police and military have followed up with hundreds of additional arrests, often with expeditious trails as well, and hundreds more have turned themselves in under a recent "lenient treatment" law, mostly from Peru's other guerrilla organization, the Revolutionary Tupac Amaru Movement (MRTA). In this long, difficult struggle, accounting for more than 27,000 deaths and $22 billion in property damage since 1980, the government appears to be gaining the upper hand. Fujimori is the clear beneficiary.
NATIONAL and municipal elections also served to strengthen the Peruvian president's position. This was largely because they were organized to encourage new political groups to register, as well as to keep established parties off balance. In November, the country held a national vote for 80 constituent-assembly delegates to reform the 1979 Constitution and then serve as Congress for the balance of Fujimori's term (scheduled to end July 28, 1995). This delivered to the president a legislative majority for the first time.
In January, municipal elections represented successes of a different sort. Shining Path's efforts to disrupt them - a key objective in its long-term strategy - were far less successful than they were in 1989. The established political parties lost out as well. After most chose not to register for the November vote, they participated in the January local elections, fully expecting to gain a new launching pad for success in 1995. However, they fared poorly. Residents of most major towns and cities voted fo r independent candidates instead.
By means of these votes, Fujimori succeeded in outmaneuvering the politicians and their parties while simultaneously meeting the Organization of American States' demand for timely free and fair elections to restore democracy to Peru. Along the way he also succeeded in forcing into exile his predecessor, Alan Garcia. Many blame Mr. Garcia for pushing Peru to the brink of disaster by 1990. His political rejuvenation in early 1992 may have been the proximate cause of Fujimori's April 5 autogolpe.
At root, Fujimori's political success is based on his ability to tap a reservoir of popular discontent over the failure of two successive elected governments between 1980 and 1990 to even begin to solve the country's problems. When Fujimori became president in July 1990, hyperinflation was raging, government employment - mostly patronage jobs - had jumped by 40 percent as government revenues were halved, the treasury was empty, neither foreign debt nor interest were being paid, the social welfare system
had collapsed, and political violence had reached historic highs. In short, a decade of formal democracy had made things dramatically worse in Peru.
Political parties were ineffective in meeting the needs of their constituents. But Shining Path was too extreme an alternative for all but a few Peruvians. In the absence of viable alternatives, average Peruvians turned to their own devices - including local self-help organizations, neighborhood soup kitchens, nongovernmental entities to give and receive assistance, and "nonpolitical" politicians, including Fujimori.
What seems to be emerging in Peru is a nontraditional approach to politics based on these expanding networks of local social organizations and their leaders, on the one hand, and an "authoritarian democrat" and his staff at the center, on the other. The dynamic is analogous to the informal economy that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s to respond to people's needs as Peru's formal economy became less able to do so. Today, an informal polity is developing to try to do the job that formal electoral party poli tics so far has failed to accomplish.
DURING the past several years, US policymakers have spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about Peru. The Clinton administration may try to write Peru off, citing human rights abuses or a shift in our "drug war" priorities.
That would be a mistake. More lives will be saved and more people's precarious economic situations improved if the US moves quickly to normalize relations. Washington should take a leadership role in restoring hundreds of millions of dollars in aid through the 12-government Peru Support Group and encourage international financial institutions to complete quickly the long-awaited $2 billion to $3 billion economic reinsertion process. Peru must have both to regain, after six years, real economic growth in 1993. In turn, economic growth will reinforce efforts now under way in Peru to promote economic liberalism, strengthen government welfare services, reduce drug trafficking, eliminate the guerrilla threat, and increase the population's access to politics.
Such normalization would also give the US greater leverage on both human rights and drug-trafficking issues. In short, nuanced pragmatism rather than strident moralism makes the most sense in dealing with Peru.