Almost overnight, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori has become a political anachronism.
For the last seven years, he has represented the long-venerated Latin American tradition of strong personalistic rule - the leader who understands the people and their needs and does "what's gotta be done." For almost all of that time he has had popular approval ratings in the 50 percent to 80 percent range - levels that most heads of state can only dream about.
The reason is simple. With his election in 1990, Mr. Fujimori inherited a nation near collapse - hyperinflation of up to 60 percent a month, an economic cupboard that was virtually bare and with zero international credit, burgeoning drug production as the only growth industry, and the highest levels of guerrilla violence in Latin America at the hands of the Shining Path and the Tpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).
And he turned it around - single-digit annual inflation, solid economic growth with full international credit backing, a big drop in coca leaf production (the raw material for cocaine), and guerrilla violence a shadow of its former self.
Peruvians liked the results and supported their author. Fujimori basked in the glow. So what went wrong?
One risk too many
Our intrepid hero, instead of preparing to ride off into the sunset after two unprecedented five-year elected terms, his legacy as Peru's modern savior intact, concluded, caudillo-style, that more was better. At the peak of his popularity as the daring risk taker who successfully engineered the MRTA hostage rescue from the Japanese ambassador's residence in late April, Fujimori blew it by trying to secure yet another five-year term in office.
No matter that Peru's Supreme Electoral Tribunal majority of judges determined that a third term was unconstitutional. President Fujimori simply got his one house congressional majority to vote to remove the offending judges.
With the prospect of a popular referendum constitutionally empowered to reach the same decision as the tribunal majority after collecting some 100,000 signatures, the president changed the rules to require 1 million signatures (which organizers may well be able to get).
And when Frecuencia Latina, an independent television station, had the temerity to broadcast damning evidence that Fujimori's intelligence services were secretly and illegally tapping some 200 telephones of leading opposition politicians, businesspeople, and news media, the president moved to revoke the Peruvian citizenship of the station's Israeli-born owner, Baruch Ivcher. Last week a court upheld the president's decree, though Mr. Ivcher plans to appeal the decision.
What a remarkable turn of events for a head of state who has presided over one of the most extraordinary recoveries of a Latin American nation in memory!
But that was then and this is now. Peruvians revere Alberto Fujimori for saving their country. However, they are not willing to put up with his blatant machinations to stay in charge now that the crises have passed. Democracy of and by the people seems to be sprouting again in Peru. Fujimori would be well advised to listen to the people for once. His time has come, and passed - and so should he.
* David Scott Palmer, editor/contributor of "Shining Path of Peru" (St. Martin's Press), teaches Latin American politics at Boston University.