To be compared to Chile's former dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, may be considered insulting in some democratic circles. But when newly reelected President Alberto Fujimori, or "El Chinochet" as he is sometimes called, was confronted with this analogy, the response was surprising and revealing.
Hardly offended, the president smiled broadly and even responded by volunteering the Chinochet moniker, which is a play on "El Chino," Fujimori's nickname even though his parentage is Japanese.
"What Peru needed," Fujimori said at a news conference Sunday night, describing his first five years in power, "was order, discipline, the principle of authority and leadership, administration, honesty. I don't know if Gen. Pinochet has these characteristics."
The parallel between the power of a reelected Peruvian president and Pinochet -- the totalitarian leader who seized power in 1973 and who is now widely credited with setting Chile's house in order -- is not as outrageous as it may seem. Fujimori's landslide victory Sunday and the unexpected triumph of his party in Congress -- it now has a comfortable majority in the 120-seat legislature -- have given him what some observers today called unprecedented powers for a democratically elected leader.
His triumph at the polls, the collapse of Peru's traditional parties and the reality of an already centralized government make Fujimori a maximum leader. The target of international criticism for having disbanded Congress and suspended the constitution in 1992, Fujimori and his authoritarian approach to governing now have been validated by popular vote.
How he will exercise his broad powers was a subject of debate today as Peruvians began assessing what they collectively wrought. Prognostications ranged from doomsday to salvation, depending on where the person stood with respect to Fujimori.
"His legitimacy is now unquestionable," said Sinesio Lopez, a professor of political science at the Institute for Dialogue and Proposals. "But there is a problem. The democratic origins are unquestionable, but the functionality of a democratic regime is questionable."
"It is enormous power for a president. There is not going to be any counterweight," said Francisco Sagasti, a former head of strategic planning at the World Bank and a senior researcher at GRADE, another think tank. "There is going to be extreme deference on the part of Congress toward the president."
Such doubts about Peru's democratic future are based on Fujimori's first five years. The leader of a grass-roots movement who assumed office with no political debts or easily identifiable ideology, Fujimori adapted the neo-liberal platform of the man he defeated, the author Mario Vargas Llosa, and is now credited with Peru's economic success. He gave the armed forces free rein to combat leftist Shining Path guerrillas, who are close to defeat.
But in the process, according to his critics and international human rights observers, Fujimori dealt a blow to democracy. Aside from disbanding an elected Congress -- a move that proved popular and one he justified by calling the institution corrupt and obstructionist -- Fujimori's highly centralized approach weakened Peru's institutions and left the country without many checks and balances -- even though a revised Congress soon returned.
One senior Latin American diplomat who was here for the elections said Peru's democracy would have benefited greatly from a closer election, or at least one that did not give Fujimori control of Congress. Such sentiments reflect the concern over the state of Peru's traditional political parties, which were dealt a blow in 1990 and another Sunday.
Three principal political movements -- APRA, Popular Action and the Popular Christian Party -- each received less than 5 percent of the vote, the limit required to be considered viable under Peruvian law. The Union for Peru movement founded last year and led by Javier Perez de Cuellar, the former U.N. secretary general and Fujimori's main challenger, finished second, well ahead of the others.
"The parties died yesterday," said Lopez, who predicted a lengthy process of political renovation. Although perhaps problematic in the short term, Lopez said Peru's democracy will benefit in the end because it will forge new political movements, ones that are less ideological and more broad-based.
Fujimori, for his part, made it clear at a victory news conference that sometimes democracy has been the problem and not the solution, an argument often made by some of his allies in Congress. He said the election had eliminated the "party-cracy" that was at the root of Peru's problems in the 1980s, and he promised that his government will be marked by "efficiency."
"That's a very important term -- more efficiency in management," he said, responding in English to a question from a foreign journalist. "My ministers and myself are managers. . . . I want ministers who manage . . . well the resources that we have. That's the way we reorganize the government."
"When it is about progress," Fujimori said at another point, "no one stops El Chino." CAPTION: Peruvians in Lima's Plaza de Armas show up as President Fujimori, left, and defeated Javier Perez de Cuellar.