LIMA, Peru (AP) _ The Shining Path has patiently waged its insurgency campaign for nearly 12 years, waiting to ''unmask'' Peruvian democracy as a fraud and present itself as the only alternative to a dictatorship.

President Alberto Fujimori said one reason he suspended Peru's constitution on April 5 was to sharpen the fight against the Maoist guerrillas. But scholars who study the rebels' strategy believe he played right into their hands.

Peru has been wracked by drug trafficking and pervasive poverty that feeds the resilient leftist guerrilla movement. Also aiding the insurgency is the resentment Peru's Indian and mixed-race majority feels for the white elite.

About 25,000 people have died in political violence since the Shining Path launched its war on May 17, 1980.

Shining Path experts say the group is working on many levels to undermine democracy in Peru - infiltrating unions, taking over urban shantytowns, setting up alternative governments in the rural areas it controls.

''They wanted a coup so they could appear to be a legitimate insurgency confronting an illegal government,'' said Carlos Ivan Degregori, director of the Institute of Peruvian Studies. ''This is the greatest triumph the Shining Path has had in 12 years.''

Degregori and others fear that indiscriminate repression by the new military-backed government will result in more people joining the Shining Path's ranks.

International human rights groups have harshly criticized Peru's military, saying atrocities are a mainstay of the counterinsurgency campaign.

Fujimori's decision to dissolve Congress raised the military to new prominence after more than a decade on the political sidelines.

Security teams have picked up more than 100 suspected Shining Path rebels since the coup and began taking over a prison where about 700 accused or convicted inmates have free run because civilian guards fear them.

But insurgency experts and shantytown residents doubt that military measures alone can defeat the Shining Path, which feeds off desperation in a nation where more than half of the population of 22 million lives in acute poverty.

The answer, they say, is to attend the needs of Peru's poor: food, water delivery, electricity, health care and education.

''That won't be solved by parking the army here,'' said Ester Flores, the deputy mayor of the San Juan de Lurigancho district, a sprawling maze of 900,000 people, the vast majority deeply poor. ''The subversives will still have a pretext to continue.''

In the Villa El Salvador shantytown, the local government had decided it could no longer remain neutral in Peru's political conflict and planned to coordinate anti-subversive efforts with the army.

''Now everything has changed,'' said Ivan Miflin, director of the district's industrial park. ''What Fujimori did was put the population in the middle of the Shining Path and the armed forces.''

The military's response to the highly secretive Shining Path is sure to include a repressive crackdown on the legal left because ''the military is not capable of distinguishing who is a member of the Shining Path and who isn't,'' said Fernando Rospigliosi, a political scientist.

Despite the high toll in lives over the past 12 years, the military has not succeeded in defeating the Shining Path with purely military actions.

The guerrillas have yet to respond to the new one-man rule. But few doubt what their reaction will be.

''Sendero is surely applauding these circumstances more than anyone else,'' said Gustavo Gorriti, author of a book about the rebels. ''It is going to give them legitimacy.''

Sendero Luminoso is the Spanish name for the Shining Path.