LIMA, PERU, MAY 1 -- When a leading opponent of President Alberto Fujimori's military-backed takeover arrived at the airport from a trip abroad, a crowd hissed and booed. When former president Alan Garcia's wife tried to petition the government to find out whether her husband was being detained, a mob of bystanders chased her with bottles and rocks. When Fujimori asked the crowd at a rally what kind of congress they wanted, most said they wanted no congress at all.
Critics have used words like arrogant, illegal, undemocratic, unconstitutional and dictatorial to describe Fujimori's power grab. But one word nobody has used is unpopular.
Public opinion surveys, even by pollsters who oppose the Fujimori regime, show that Fujimori's actions have an astonishing level of public support. Battered by problems of poverty and political violence, Peruvians appear to believe they have found a strongman leader who can make everything right.
Fujimori now speaks of restructuring the government so that public sentiment can regularly be taken into account, perhaps through plebiscites like the one he has called for July 5 to ratify his putsch. In effect, he is moving toward government by opinion survey.
The only bad news for Fujimori, according to the polls, is that Peruvians expect him to keep his many promises. If he fails to fix the economy, end terrorism and eliminate corruption -- problems that have been building for decades -- analysts say the polls that have raised him to such heights could begin to lay him low.
For the moment, however, Fujimori enjoys a sweeping mandate. One poll, by the Lima-based firm Datum, showed that on April 6 -- the day after Fujimori suspended the constitution, dissolved the congress, sent tanks into the streets and rounded up political opponents -- his popularity jumped 15 points to 79 percent. Another survey by the firm Apoyo gave Fujimori an 81 percent approval rating, while some other polls peg his support at even higher levels.
"There is a long Peruvian tradition of looking for a strongman, a father, an emperor, an Inca," said Diego Garcia-Sayan, who heads the Andean Commission of Jurists, a human rights lobby. "Fujimori understood this. . . . You hear people saying that he's the Peruvian Pinochet that we need, someone to provide order."
Critics and supporters alike have taken to jokingly modifying his nickname, "Chino" -- which stems from his Asian ancestry -- and calling him "Chinochet." The reference is to Chilean strongman Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who took power in a 1973 coup and held it for nearly 17 years.
There have been scores of coups in the tempestuous history of Latin American governance, and most have had some significant level of public backing. But Fujimori's coup, like Fujimori himself, is different.
Datum found that only 16 percent opposed his decision to "modify" the constitution, only 12 percent opposed his move to shut down the congress, and only 2 percent found fault with his resolve to "reorganize" the judiciary, now being stocked with a new crew of judges to replace the ones Fujimori summarily fired.
Peruvian pollsters have become accustomed to surprises, not the least of which was Fujimori's own rise two years ago from obscurity to the presidency in the space of four months. Public opinion here is extremely volatile, they say, perhaps because of the gravity of the long-running Peruvian crisis.
"It is a beaten-down public, almost at the point of desperation to believe that there is a magic solution to their problems," said Alfredo Torres of the Apoyo firm. "People take hope in almost any passing phenomenon."
More than half the Peruvian population lives in extreme poverty, many in shantytowns on the outskirts of the big cities. The formal economy has all but collapsed, driving hundreds of thousands into the streets of Lima to sell chewing gum and cigarettes. A Maoist insurgency, Shining Path, has spread throughout the country and led to more than 24,000 deaths in the past 12 years. Basic services are so deficient that cholera, a disease of decades past, has become endemic.
In this context, even the smallest ray of hope is like a beacon.
Torres recalled that last year, when a well-known Brazilian faith healer named Joao Teixeira came to town, tens of thousands of people -- the lame, the halt, the deaf and the blind -- mobbed his headquarters for a chance to benefit from the "surgery" he performed with a butter knife. Huge crowds also turned out in the port city of Callao when two statues of Mary were reported to have begun to weep.
Fujimori has proven particularly adept at capitalizing on this desperate search for answers. He showed his acumen during his winning presidential campaign, when alone among the candidates he spoke to the dark-skinned, dispossessed majority.
While others were giving traditional speeches and issuing position papers, Fujimori was chatting with street vendors in the teeming marketplaces and hauling his trademark red tractor through the shantytowns, blaming Peru's problems on the "little whites" who had so haughtily -- and so badly -- run Peru for 450 years.
Since taking office, Fujimori has carried out what critics call a well-planned campaign to convince the public that the congress, the courts and the traditional political establishment were obstructing urgent reforms.
"Everyone knew that the judicial system was not honest, that the judges took bribes," said Manuel Torrado, president of Datum. "Fujimori very astutely put congress in the same bag. He blamed them for the recession, for terrorism. . . . It was a smokescreen."
Fujimori acknowledged after his takeover that he had not anticipated the widespread international condemnation, saying he wished he had had an "image adviser." But in fact, Fujimori has always been well advised on image matters, proving himself an adept handler of the photo op and the sound bite.
Cab drivers, fruit sellers and shantytown dwellers have come to parrot his catch phrases, like referring to the Palace of Justice -- headquarters of the court system, the most unpopular of all Peruvian institutions -- as the "Palace of Injustice."
Last week, Fujimori addressed a cheering rally downtown. While the gathering was billed as spontaneous, in fact it had been touted in slick handbills. Witnesses said some of the participants appeared to have been bused in from the shantytowns by "rent-a-mob" operators who charge fees to provide quotas of warm bodies.
Now, even with the courts, the congress and the constitution shoved aside, about half of the public still believes that Peru is still living under a democracy, Torres said.
Perhaps more importantly, according to the polls, most people expect Fujimori to solve the nation's problems. Some 85 percent believe he will "structure a more efficient legislature," Datum found, while 84 percent believe he will make the judiciary more honest.
And nearly three-fourths believe that Fujimori's takeover will allow him to solve the economic crisis, while more than half think he will defeat terrorism.
"The principal problems of the country, as people see them, are the economy and political violence," Torres said. "People worry mostly about their income and their security. If there are no quick results in these areas, Fujimori will have problems."
He could rely even more heavily on the support he enjoys from the armed forces. But Peruvians, by a wide margin, reject the idea of a military dictatorship and expect Fujimori to respect his timetable for returning to constitutional rule.
Even members of the deposed congress say they believe Fujimori's popularity will last for months before beginning a slow decline, but history indicates that almost anything can happen. When former president Garcia took office in 1985, for example, his approval ratings hovered well above 80 percent. Peru was measured as the most optimistic country in the world.
Just a few years later, Garcia's popularity had fallen to 6 percent.
Staff writer Don Oberdorfer reported from Washington:
The State Department announced that Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson, the ranking expert on Latin America, is on a trip to Lima, where he expects to see Fujimori and other Peruvian officials. Spokesman Richard Boucher said Aronson's mission is "to support the Organization of American States' effort" to develop a political solution "that all democratic parties in Peru can accept."
The spokesman said Aronson will also point out that "a democratic solution is necessary before Peru can expect the support of the international community." The United States terminated nearly all its aid to Peru after Fujimori's takeover last month.