President Alberto Fujimori of Peru has built a political career on toughness with the violent guerrilla movements that beset his country. His popularity soared when Peruvian forces ended a hostage crisis at the Japanese embassy in Lima earlier this year. It's now in a tailspin.
Mr. Fujimori's ups and downs say a lot about the still rough road of democracy in Latin America.
The Peruvian leader has helped stabilize a society that was in disarray when he took over in 1990. Much of what he's done, however, has been at the expense of Peru's fragile democratic institutions. Just this May, his supporters in the legislature thwarted a ruling by the country's constitutional court that would have kept Fujimori from seeking a third presidential term. Since then the president has revoked the citizenship of the operator of a TV station that reported on a phone-tapping plot by the government's intelligence agency.
These actions have sparked street protests in Lima. Many people feel the president is becoming a front for the intelligence service and the military. They want a more democratic government, but they have little organized means of attaining one. The legislature does the president's will, the courts are weakened, and political parties scarcely exist.
Adding to Fujimori's drooping popularity is economic need. The president has enforced fiscal discipline and tamed inflation. But poverty has deepened nonetheless. Nearly half of Peru's 24 million people now live in poverty, and almost 17 percent lack adequate food. At the same time, more Peruvians than ever are attending secondary school and college, though job opportunities lag far behind.
The upshot: rising expectations, hard economic realities, protests in the face of high-handed uses of power, and a president whose approval rating was only 19 percent in a recent poll.
Fujimori still can redeem himself. He has rationalized economic policy and largely smothered the guerrilla threat. Now he should see to it that his country is left with institutions that can foster democracy. That may not be in keeping with his character, but it's the only way he'll be remembered as a leader who contributed positively to Latin America's political evolution.