SUPPOSE THAT a totally unknown dean of an agricultural college -- say North Carolina's A&T State -- decides to run for senator, then, while he's at it, tosses his hat into the presidential race, and not only rallies grass roots support but wins. Go on to suppose that within four years of occupying the White House, that same president rounds up the Mafia's elusive capo di tutti capi, throws him in a dungeon behind seven locks, rids the nation of crime, makes city streets safe again and transforms the country from an abyss of bankruptcy into an emerging nation with the highest growth rate in the world. Would there be so much as a peep from any sane quarter suggesting that this man shouldn't be swept back into a second term of office with loud gongs and glory?

In Peru, where precisely that sequence of events has come to pass, there's more than a peep to be heard on presidential matters these days. The sound is more like a fenceful of magpies, as some of the country's top economists and sociologists have gathered forces to pick President Albert K. Fujimori apart before the April 9 elections, in hopes of stalling out his iron reign.

By any objective measurement, Fujimori has wrought miracles in Peru. With his resounding defeat of the eloquent and worldly novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in the 1990 elections, this second-generation Japanese-Peruvian came out of nowhere to oversee one of the most dramatic economic and political reversals in contemporary history. As recently as five years ago, the country was little more than a bombed-out wreck: Peru had become a stomping ground for the Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path), a fierce Maoist guerrilla movement whose terrorism littered the countryside with 26,000 corpses and infiltrated as much as two-thirds of Peru's landmass. Pundits were predicting that it was only a matter of time before Sendero leader Abimael Guzman Reynoso descended on Lima's Palacio de Gobierno. Just as menacing was Peru's economy, which teetered on the verge of total collapse. Paralyzed by a hyperinflation that was raging at more than 8,000 percent annually, it was, some said, as volatile an economy as Germany's before World War II.

Peruvians had become a shell-shocked people. Those without the means to leave had no choice but to hang on and see which of their country's two evils -- violence or poverty -- would close in around them like a noose around a doomed man's neck.

The dean of Lima's agricultural college changed all that. Days after his inauguration, Fujimori announced what Peruvians called "El Fujishock": The new government installed punishing measures to stabilize hyperinflation. Peru -- down to its poorest citizens -- swallowed hard and took it. In 1991, the president opened up financial markets to foreign investment and launched the privatization of Peru's highly socialized economy. Money began to flow in.

In April 1992, beset by an uncooperative and unwieldy Congress, Fujimori shut down the country's legislative and judicial institutions in an autogolpe (self-coup). When officials protested, he put them in jail. The Peruvian people only applauded. It took long, loud objections from the international community to move the president to reinstall a Constituent Assembly and restore the constitution.

But the high point came in September 1992. It was then that Fujimori's officers captured Abimael Guzman above a little modern dance studio in the Surco district of Lima. In that one stroke, Fujimori rescued the country from its terrorist stranglehold. The Shining Path had always coerced people into service by threatening their families or slitting throats "for show"; when Guzman was thrust into a cage and his elite rounded up, the Senderos understood that overnight their movement had been rendered toothless. On the night of Guzman's arrest, Peruvians flooded the streets shouting with joy; it is a liberation they are not likely to forget. Today, Peru is the world's most improved player, a booming success story, an investor's dream. Whether suitors looking to buy into Peru are domestic or foreign, they are welcomed and treated equally. Liberal new banking laws have been installed. Prices are determined by supply and demand, the tax system has been simplified, and all economic activity has been deregulated, making Peru's investment opportunities among the most open in the world. Inflation has plummeted and will probably reach single digits by year's end. Tourism, agriculture, mining, fishing and energy, as well as other commercial sectors responded last year with a whopping 12 percent growth. And even though Peru has just dug itself out of a border war with Ecuador -- with costs estimated anywhere from $25 million to $250 million -- 1995 promises a healthy growth rate of 7 percent.

Lima has all the jingle-jangle of a shopping bonanza these days, and its hotel rooms are full of business people ready to negotiate. The telephone system has been sold to Spain. Iron mines have been sold to China. The gold mines of Yanacocha now belong to Newmont Mining of Denver (Peru is the continent's largest producer of gold). Dozens of U.S. and Canadian companies are drilling for oil or digging for minerals in the north. The state airline has been sold, as well as banking, paper and transport companies. Inter-Continental Hotels, Marriott, Hilton, Domino's Pizza and Blockbuster are reported to be jostling for market positions. Up for sale are the Banco Continental, the Lima Water Supply Co., Electroperu, Petroperu, the Peruvian ports and the country's major insurance conglomerates as well as some of Latin America's largest fisheries.

And Peruvians are loving it. According to the Peruvian embassy's economic counselor, Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, "87 percent firmly believe that foreign investment should be fostered." Peru's pollsters report that 60 percent of all Peruvians think their country is steaming ahead on the right road to economic recovery. Although economist Francisco Sagasti calls the privatization program "a basement sale" and Foreign Minister Efraim Goldenberg "the sales manager," not one of the 13 candidates running against Fujimori disagrees with the present economic plan.

Nor does Fujimori seem threatened at the polls. With an approval rating of 70 percent, he is said to have more than double the projected votes of his hottest contender, former United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar.

So if the Peruvian people are so happy with Fujimori why are so many of the country's elites -- the intellectuals -- so worried about him? The answer can be found in the word most bandied about by the president's critics lately: poverty. More than half of Peru's population continues to live in it. Ironically, it was the poor Indian pobladores who swept Fujimori, the non-white candidate, to power in 1990. And it is they who are likely to sweep him to power again this year. But Fujimori's largely white collection of critics are claiming that "El Chino Fuji," with his free-market bazaar and increasingly dictatorial ways, has turned his back on the very people who handed him the scepter.

"Nothing hurts the poor worse than economic collapse," acknowledges Carol Graham, a visiting fellow at the World Bank and author of the book "Safety Nets, Politics and the Poor." "By turning the economy around alone, Fujimori has helped the poor."

But, she claims, Fujimori has made no effort to put in place the kind of democratic infrastructure that can really benefit poor Peruvians over the long term. According to her, the president's inclination has been "to rely on secretive tactics and unilateral actions rather than consensus-building, tactics that may be suited to short-term shock policies but not to a program for sustaining structural reform."

Perez de Cuellar recalls the time early in Fujimori's presidency when he personally made a point of introducing the president to Margaret Joan Anstee, the head of the U.N. Center for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs, who was ready to assist Fujimori in dealing with a social emergency program back in 1991. "What did Fujimori do? He selected totally inexperienced people to work with her. The initiative sank like a stone."

Perez de Cuellar has devoted his campaign to the poverty issue, and is convinced that if Peru does not address the social problems, all its economic advances will have been for nought. With his candidate for vice president, Graciela Fernandez Baca -- a little fireplug of an economist who grew up speaking the indigenous Quechua language and now specializes in poverty statistics -- the former diplomat has quietly been making appearances in the most squalid shantytowns, where the locals turn out in wide-eyed wonder to hear the elegant, white-haired man speak to them in their own tongue.

One of the pueblos he visits regularly is Villa Salvador, a community of 320,000 indigents sprawled in the sandy expanse of Lima's southern flanks, where I went in late February to interview one of Peru's popular heros, Michel Azcueta. "Perez de Cuellar was here just yesterday to honor Maria Elena Moyano, our deputy mayor who was murdered by the Sendero two years ago," Azcueta said. "And he came with no photographers \. \. \. ."

Azcueta is a gentle Spaniard who came to Peru to teach, but ended up joining the United Left and establishing Villa Salvador on barren sand 24 years ago when tens of thousands of homeless Peruvian Indians streamed down to Lima after a devastating earthquake in Huaraz.

"Fujimori's regime has served the rich above all else," he says, his eyes darkening. "But the people of Villa Salvador are with Fujimori. He cleaned out the Sendero; he wiped out inflation -- and, I would add, his shock tactics hurt the people of this pueblo most. They were the first to lose water, electricity, food \. \. \. . But never mind, they will give him their votes."

Although he is only in his mid-fifties, Azcueta hobbles about with a cane. In 1992 the Sendero tried to assassinate him but only succeeded in pounding his legs with gunshot.

Azcueta is justifiably proud of Villa Salvador. While its dirt streets and mud brick shacks afford little more than a hardscrabble existence, it is a community that feeds and employs its inhabitants, educates its children, and administers to its sick. The only district in all of Peru to use its sewage to irrigate and fertilize its arid acreage, Salvador has managed to grow its own food, raise cattle and establish numerous small industries from textile mills to handbag factories. These goods are exported as far afield as Canada, the United States and Russia. The comedores publicos (public dining rooms) and Vaso de Leche (Glass of Milk) programs are models of efficiency for the rest of Peru. It was here that Peru's broadly successful federations of women got their start. And the level of scholarship among its students ranks in the country's 90th percentile.

Azcueta and Villa Salvador have done their work without one centavo of assistance from Peruvian government offices. "Now that we have raised this colossus out of the desert," says Azcueta, "we get visitors from Ecuador and from as far away as Kenya, looking to see how they can implement our ideas and techniques."

But official Peru -- and here he points to Fujimori in particular -- has made no effort to understand how poverty has been addressed in Villa Salvador and how the community's successes might be imitated in more desperate barriadas. "The state, especially in these difficult and important times," Azcueta claims, "has shown little will to take up our task of raising up the poor."

Perhaps it is because the poor of Peru have always proven themselves remarkably resilient in the face of crises. Squeaking out ingenious existences in the "informal sector" (Peru's former black market), they manage to live from dawn to dawn without so much as a peep of complaint.

But to some Peru is a revolution in the making. One look at the surging brown masses of ambulantes (vagrants) who have descended on the center of Lima since the Sendero insanity began is enough to convince even the blindest optimist of that. Although the poor may not see their own precariousness as they emerge from the long night of terrorism into the relative sun, many of Peru's thinking elite believe hard challenges lie ahead. Fujimori would do well to give these concerned Peruvians a hearing. But it is not Fujimori's style. He has surrounded himself not with a cosmopolitan entourage of intellectuals, but with a troubling assortment of henchmen. His top adviser, the Rasputin-like lawyer Vladimiros Montesinos, is tarnished by ties to cocaine traffickers. In turn, Montesinos's adviser, the psychiatrist Segisfredo Luza, has an even stranger legacy: Nineteen years ago, suspecting a man for being in love with one of his patients, Luza invited him to his office, killed him, rolled his body up in a carpet and then turned himself in. Limenos still remember the high scandal that followed.

And, inexplicably, Fujimori has removed his best and brightest from their positions of power: Socioeconomic analyst Hernando De Soto, who rewrote the rigid laws that inhibited the natural entrepreneurialism of Peru's poorest sector, was dropped unceremoniously from the president's circle. Former economic minister Carlos Bolona, who engineered the free market boom, was dismissed when he seemed to be getting a great deal of publicity. Antonio Ketin Vidal, the police colonel who masterminded the arrest of Abimael Guzman, was kicked upstairs and left to twiddle his thumbs. Even Susana Higuchi Fujimori, Peru's first lady, was depicted as a demented harpy when she accused her husband's regime of corruption and announced that she would run for the presidency herself. (Fujimori has since sent her packing.)

Some Peruvians will argue that Fujimori has needed Machiavellians to fight the monsters of Peru's recent past: socialist bunglers, the cocaine underworld and the Shining Path. Some Peruvians will say that the reason Fujimori has accomplished as much as he has is because he had the audacity to ostracize the intellectuals, ignore their natterings and cut his own heros off at their knees before they had a chance to feel complacent. And then there are those who will say that authoritarianism is a virtue in a country where cowards refuse to shoulder the hard responsibilities.

But the question remains -- no less relevant in the greater world than in the context of Peru: Can a high-handed, dictatorial ruler -- as effective as he may be in dismantling chaos -- be relied upon to build consensus, confront poverty, kindle education and effect real institutional change? As Francisco Sagasti puts it: "Can a demolition man be trusted with a construction job?" We'll have to wait and see about that. Marie Arana-Ward, deputy editor of The Washington Post's Book World, was born and raised in Peru.