A decade after the disgraced president Alberto Fujimori fled Peru amid an election-rigging and corruption storm, his 35-year-old daughter, Keiko, may be on the brink of a remarkable family comeback. With an engaging smile and an ability to stay on message that defies her relative political inexperience, Ms Fujimori is now among the frontrunners in Peru’s closely fought presidential elections, with the first round of voting to take place on Sunday.
The young congresswoman’s slick campaign – orchestrated, some claim, by her aging father from the prison cell where he is serving a 25-year sentence for directing death squads and embezzlement – has taken her opponents by surprise. Running on Mr Fujimori’s hardline legacy, she has promised a crackdown on corruption and violent crime, including the re-introduction of the death penalty – while also raising the prospect of a presidential pardon for her father.
Predictably, Ms Fujimori has her own perspective on her father’s presidency. “The surname Fujimori arouses passions,” she told El Comercio, a daily newspaper in Peru. “Great achievements as well as serious errors have been attributed to my father. Corruption attacked my father’s government and there were people who betrayed him.”
Yet for all her trappings of a modern democratic politician – including the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter –
Ms Fujimori has been unable to shake off repeated accusations of corruption. Revelations have included the alleged sale of party positions to the highest bidder and the funding of her campaign by alleged cocaine traffickers.
The most persistent charge is that her expensive bachelor’s and master’s degrees from private American universities were financed with stolen public money. Last week saw the publication of emails from 2001 apparently showing Ms Fujimori and her father, at the time in exile in Japan, concocting a cover story regarding the funding. Ms Fujimori, who has twice failed to attend judicial hearings over the allegations, described the claims as “fabrications”.
For many voters, Ms Fujimori’s constant evocation of her father’s regime arouses deep anxieties about the future of Peru’s young democracy. Although Mr Fujimori is widely credited with ending the civil war with the Shining Path and stabilising Peru’s freefalling economy, including quickly halting hyperinflation, when he took office in 1990, the methods he used remain hugely controversial.
In particular, his free-market restructuring, dubbed the “Fujishock”, plunged millions into poverty – despite a campaign promise that he would never adopt such a policy. His subsequent 1992 autogolpe or self-coup, although approved by more than 80 per cent of the population at the time, is also recalled as the start of the ravaging of Peru’s hard-won democracy.
Yet polls have consistently given Ms Fujimori the support of nearly one in five voters, a rock-solid base among Peru’s lower classes who gratefully recall her father’s crushing of the Shining Path and turn a blind eye to his abuses of power.
That gives her an excellent chance of finishing in the top two and passing to the second round of voting in June. Her two principal rivals are Ollanta Humala, a left-wing former army officer who recently took the lead with around 24 per cent, and Alejandro Toledo, the centrist former president who, like Ms Fujimori, is now polling 18 per cent.
Mr Humala is viewed with fear by many affluent Peruvians over his plans to rewrite the constitution and reshape the economy in favour of the poor, including renegotiating contracts with foreign oil and mining companies. But he has moderated his image since narrowly losing the 2006 elections amid claims that he was being controlled by Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, swapping his trademark red T-shirt for a suit and tie and seeking advice from strategists of the former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva.
Last week, Mr Chavez, asked about the Peruvian elections, initially refused to comment before unhelpfully describing Mr Humala as a “good soldier” and then talking about him at length. The remarks sparked a furore in Peru. One of Mr Humala’s congressional candidates threatened to sue Mr Chavez and an angry Mr Humala told him to stay out of Peruvian internal affairs, adding that “the Venezuelan model is not applicable in Peru”.
Meanwhile, Mr Toledo, who was president from 2001 to 2006, is running on his own promise to reduce poverty, while preserving the free-market reforms that have seen Peru’s economy top Latin America’s growth charts for the last decade. Sometimes accused of being overly fond of whisky, Mr Toledo is, in his own words, a “statistical anomaly”, one of 16 children born into in an impoverished indigenous Andean family who rose to earn a PhD in the United States and work at the World Bank and UN.
The one other candidate thought to have a chance of reaching the second round is Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a Peruvian-American businessman who was prime minister under Mr Toledo. Currently polling around 16 per cent, Mr Kuczynski’s campaign has suffered over his apparent foot-dragging in renouncing his US citizenship.
On Sunday, the four candidates plus Luis Castañeda, the former mayor of Lima who briefly led the polls in December before a disastrous campaign saw him slip to fifth place, took part in a TV debate.
With personal attacks prohibited – and transgressors threatened with having their microphones switched off – the debate was slow to come to life.
Unused to fighting from behind, Mr Toledo tetchily referred to his former prime minister in English as “Mister Kuczynski” highlighting his US links, while also playing to the fears surrounding Mr Humala, insistently calling him “Commander”. The frontrunner and Ms Fujimori played it safe, largely sticking to scripted remarks rather than engaging with their opponents.
Ms Fujimori’s poised contribution was notable for her use of the first-person plural in describing the achievements of her father’s regime, despite that she was a teenager for much of that period.
Citing the failure of Mr Toledo’s policies to tackle poverty, she said: “The truth is that the peasant, the youth, the mother feel that [economic] growth is a lie when they are unable to feed their child, when they do not have decent work, when they don’t receive good service in a medical post or clinic.”
Ms Fujimori’s start to her political career could hardly have been more precocious. In 1994, at 19, her father named her first lady after falling out with his wife, Susana Higuchi. As the bitter fallout from the presidential divorce became public, including accusations that Mr Fujimori had tortured Ms Higuchi, Keiko took her father’s side, a move still viewed by many Peruvians as cruel and calculated. As a congresswoman, she has been accused of barely showing up for work — other than for foreign junkets.
President from 2001 to 2006, Mr Toledo’s personal story and democratic credentials are impeccable. The son of a bricklayer and fishmonger, he earned a PhD in economics from Stanford University before facing down President Alberto Fujimori in the 2000 elections. He narrowly lost the first round amid widespread accusations that the sitting president had rigged the results. Mr Toledo then led national protests which saw Mr Fujimori eventually resign by fax while visiting Japan.
A former lieutenant colonel, Mr Humala hides an iron will behind his soft-spoken exterior. He led a failed revolt in 2000 against President Fujimori’s electoral fraud, kidnapping a general and eventually receiving a congressional pardon. He has also been dogged by allegations of human rights abuses under his command of a remote army post during the civil war, although no formal charges have stuck.
His critics accuse him of authoritarianism, and during the 2006 elections, Mr Humala’s family caused him headaches, including one infamous remark by his father that gays should be shot, instantly losing him the votes of many liberals.
Pedro Pablo Kuczynski
The son of a German Jewish epidemiologist who fled the Nazis in 1936 to work in the Peruvian Amazon, the Oxford-educated Mr Kuczynski is a self-made millionaire. Indeed, the biggest weakness of the former prime minister and economy minister is the perception that his priority is the transnational mining and oil companies on whose behalf he has acted as a lobbyist. The author of books on subjects such as democratisation and economics, he is often viewed as the brightest of the presidential candidates. During Sunday’s debate, he was also noticeably the most relaxed and natural.