Behind the Story : Peruvians Get Close-Up Look at the 'Fujiway' : * After President Fujimori moved to rule by decree, observers agreed that he is full of surprises.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

During the weeks before President Alberto Fujimori seized authoritarian power, a foreign aid skimming scandal was making things uncomfortably hot for some of his relatives. In fact, at least one Peruvian quipster has accused Fujimori of staging the takeover to distract the media's attention from the scam.

But nobody seriously thinks he would have staged a coup just as a distraction, even though the scandal touched the president's brother and close adviser, Santiago Fujimori. Instead, by shutting the Congress and courts, President Fujimori was tackling an array of much more serious problems in a dramatic and unorthodox way--what some call the "Fujiway."

The United States, for its part, deplored the change as a "regrettable step backwards" and immediately suspended aid to Peru.

On Sunday, Fujimori promised to call a plebiscite within six months to seek voter approval of his coup while simultaneously saying he intends to stay in power until the end of his term, in July, 1995.

Since his inauguration in July, 1990, Fujimori has stunned this country time and again with his headstrong, combative political style. And some critical analysts say the military-backed coup came as a natural consequence of Fujimori's tough-guy tactics.

"He has very authoritarian traits," said Pablo Rojas, a human rights activist. "Instead of promoting consensus, he has always provoked dissension."

Others argue that the takeover was not so much a product of the president's personality as it was of his frustration with a dysfunctional political system. What most agree is that Fujimori, 53, is a bundle of surprises.

"He is a man who has a tendency to make very dramatic moves," said Hernando de Soto, a former adviser to the president. "I'm sure he even surprises people who know him intimately. He's that kind of person."

He hasn't always seemed so. As a presidential candidate in 1990, Fujimori projected the image of an energetic but mild-mannered professor. Yet there were early hints of the maverick even then, such as the "Fujimobile," a tractor-drawn platform that he rode on the campaign trail.

The son of Japanese immigrants, he had spent his career as a teacher and administrator at Peru's University of Agronomy. He was a novice politician, and he surprised nearly everyone by beating famed novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in the presidential race.

In the campaign, Vargas Llosa advocated painful austerity measures to cure Peru's runaway inflation and other economic ills. Fujimori backed a more moderate course. But shortly after taking office, Fujimori surprised the country with his own "Fujishock" of severe austerity measures that sharply cut the purchasing power of wages and plunged the country into a deep recession.

The new president also engaged in a series of clashes with influential groups, successively narrowing his options for political support.

He attacked the country's judiciary, calling some judges "jackals."

He also got into a heated public dispute over artificial birth control with authorities of the Roman Catholic Church, labeling their policies on such issues "medieval."

Fujimori reserved some of his most belligerent rhetoric for political parties and congressmen, calling them inept, corrupt, irresponsible and much more.

He even alienated part of his small Cambio 90 party and his second vice president, evangelist Carlos Garcia Garcia, by spurning evangelical Protestants who had mustered valuable grass-roots support for his campaign.

In March, 1991, the newspaper Expreso characterized Fujimori as "a novice president who prefers verbal brawling and bad manners to consensus."

But Fujimori openly prides himself on his feeling for what Peru's predominantly poor majority wants, and he has noted that his own election proved there is little public respect for traditional politicians. In public opinion polls after last week's coup, more than 70% of those interviewed said they supported the closing of Congress.

"The myopia, the narrow interests of traditional political sectors, have hampered our progress," Fujimori said in a speech.

"They not only don't see beyond their noses, but their olfactory function is atrophied."

The president's apparently self-sufficient, sometimes arrogant attitude gave rise to a nickname: "the emperor." But Fujimori prefers to compare himself to the Karate Kid, an underdog hero of Hollywood movies.

"Even if I must become Karate Kid I, II, III and IV, I will not retreat," he once said.

Meanwhile, he cultivated close relations with high army leadership, a key power base in Peru's coup-punctuated political history.

And he is said to rely on intelligence and advice from a shadowy lawyer and cashiered army captain named Vladimiro Montesinos.

Montesinos has been accused of selling security information to the U.S. CIA and of co-signing a lease agreement for a drug trafficker.

He was officially barred from all army installations until he became friendly with Fujimori.

Some suspicious critics contend that Montesinos masterminded Fujimori's alliance with army generals and may even have engineered the April 5 coup.

"Apparently, Montesinos rules," said Congresswoman Lourdes Flores. But other analysts say Fujimori is clearly his own man and the undisputed coup leader.

"Mr. Fujimori has a strong personality," said a retired army colonel who closely monitors Peruvian politics. "A leader is emerging who overshadows all the others. . . . He's a daring guy, and he's making his play."

While the exact role of Montesinos is not clear, he is known to derive important powers from his close relationship with the president.

The same can be said for the president's brother, Santiago. And that is what gave the foreign aid skimming scandal its importance.

Political analyst Fernando Rospigliosi observed that the lower house of the now-closed Congress was preparing to form a commission to investigate the scandal, which involved alleged profiteering on clothing donations from Japan.

It was the president's wife, Susana, who first accused his sister and Santiago Fujimori's wife of selling the best of the donated clothes instead of giving them to poor Peruvians. Local gossips say the first lady went public because of a squabble with her husband and in-laws.

"If an investigation had been made, it would have found them guilty," Rospigliosi said.

And Santiago Fujimori might have been forced out of the presidential palace, to his brother's political embarrassment.

But according to Rospigliosi, Fujimori's main reason for shutting the Congress and courts was to give himself a freer hand to deal with the country's increasingly intractable problems of economic and social development, guerrilla warfare, government corruption and inefficiency.

De Soto, the former presidential adviser, portrays Fujimori as a pragmatic but still relatively inexperienced politician who made a mistake. "You've got to see this as the trial and error of a president who's trying to find his way," De Soto told a group of foreign correspondents last week.

He said that once Fujimori sees that an authoritarian government runs the risk of international isolation and an eventual military takeover, he will negotiate a compromise with his political opponents for returning to democracy.

"I have seen the president, when presented with concrete alternatives, actually change his mind," De Soto said. "He is very pragmatic."

Also unpredictable. And so, Peru finds itself uneasily awaiting the next "Fujisurprise."

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