LIMA — In November 2000, amid a snowballing vote-rigging and corruption scandal, Alberto Fujimori brought down the curtain on his turbulent, autocratic decade as president of Peru. During that time, he had overseen a “self-coup,” shuttering the Congress and courts — a flagrant violation of the constitution — and allowed his Machiavellian intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos to weave a rotten spider’s web of bribes and blackmail to control politicians, journalists, and senior military officers.
But the dam finally cracked when a video of Montesinos buying a lawmaker’s support with an envelope stuffed with cash was leaked to the press. With the pressure mounting at home, Fujimori decided to jump ship during a visit to Tokyo, faxing in an infamous letter of resignation, claiming his departure was for the good of the Andean nation and would allow an “ordered transition.” With both parents born in Japan, Fujimori was entitled to citizenship and seemed to have found the perfect refuge from Peruvian justice.
Fast forward 16 years, and Fujimori — on whose watch $600 million of public funds disappeared without a trace, according to Transparency International— is serving a 25-year sentence in a Lima jail for embezzlement, directing death squads, and bribing the media to smear his opponents. (Montesinos is serving 20 years on similar charges.) While the 77-year-old is still cited for crushing the fanatic Shining Path Maoist cult that killed or disappeared more than 30,000 people, and taming the hyperinflation and economic chaos that he inherited in 1990, he is mostly remembered for his legacy of high crimes.
Yet the Fujimori family may be on the verge of an improbable political comeback — one that many Peruvians believe is being managed by the family patriarch from his jail cell. Keiko Fujimori, Alberto’s 40-year-old daughter, is now running for president on her father’s controversial hard-right legacy. In the lead up to Peru’s first round of presidential voting on April 10, she is the clear front-runner. In a fragmented field of 18 candidates, Keiko — in Peru, she is invariably referred to by her first name — has consistently polled between 30 and 35 percent, some 15 to 20 points ahead of her nearest challengers. Although the Peruvian electorate is notoriously capricious, the one apparent certainty is that Keiko will enter the June 5 runoff as the favorite.
How did Keiko resuscitate the Fujimori brand? By reminding voters of her father’s no nonsense, problem-solving image, while also distancing herself from his crimes and softening his ultraconservative movement’s stance on social issues like same-sex civil union and abortion.
Yet Keiko’s rise also speaks to the failures of Peru’s elected leaders since her father’s downfall. In a country where voter frustration runs deep, most state institutions, especially the single-chamber national Congress, are widely viewed as hopelessly corrupt and ineffective. Despite enjoying the region’s strongest economic boom since the turn of the millennium, only 24 percentof Peruvians are satisfied with democracy, according to Latinobarómetro, a public interest polling company, placing the Andean country 15th out of 18 Latin American nations.
There’s a good reason for that: Elected governments have done nothing in 15 years but break promises, says Steven Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist and columnist for La República, a leading Peruvian newspaper. “Authoritarian governments are looked on in Peru as being more responsive and representative than democratic ones,” he added.
Keiko’s rise has also been powered by a strong anti-incumbent tide. Outgoing President Ollanta Humala’s approval ratings are at 12 percent, reflecting the huge disappointment many feel in a president who watered down his center-left platform once he rose to power in 2011.
Peruvian voters have become so cynical that many are willing to tolerate crooked but effective leaders. “Roba, pero hace obras” — “He steals but implements public works” — is a national saying. Alberto Fujimori, the first Peruvian president to regularly visit communities in the Andes and the Amazon, remains revered in many remote, impoverished corners of the country for building roads, schools, and hospitals in these places.Keiko has her own virtues as a politician, of course. A married mother of two, she stood in as her father’s first lady following her parents’ acrimonious separation. Subsequently, she served one term in Congress, from 2006 to 2011, and is a disciplined campaigner. “Many people say she is a poor candidate. I disagree. She prepares well, knows her limits, and sticks to the script,” said Eduardo Dargent, a political science professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.
That has meant taking a page from her father’s book. A skilled grass-roots politician, he diligently crisscrossed Peru to give stump speeches to small audiences, a strategy Keiko has also adopted as she patiently builds regional alliances. As a front-runner, she has played it safe, largely avoiding public statements and giving few interviews in months, thus dodging the risk of putting a foot wrong. She also skipped a presidential debate in February.
In Peru’s emergent political culture, she has largely dodged criticism for that apparent aversion to the normal cut and thrust of the democratic process. Her stealthy campaign strategy has also allowed her to sidestep awkward questions about her mysterious campaign financing, the corruption scandalsthat continue to erupt around senior figures in her Popular Force party, and whether, as most Peruvians expect, she would pardon her father.
Keiko has also recently attempted to smooth Fujimorismo’s rougher ideological edges, seemingly in an attempt to position herself for June’s runoff, where she may need to win over some of the vast pool of voters who still say they have no intention of voting for a Fujimori. At a presentation at Harvard last fall hosted by Levitsky, she faced far tougher questions than she usually does in Peru. She took the opportunity to reverse Popular Force’s long-standing, bitter critique of a report by Peru’s official Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the domestic conflict with the Shining Path in the 1980s and 1990s.
That report blamed the police and military for roughly one-third of the 69,280 deaths, many of them impoverished civilians. The notion that the state’s response to the rebels’ gratuitous bloodletting may have targeted innocents has long been viewed by Popular Force as apostasy. Yet in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Keiko finally accepted that the report has been “positive for the country.” When pressured by the panel, she also backed abortion in cases where the mother’s life is at risk and offered her personal support to same-sex civil unions, anathema to many traditional Fujimoristas, many of whom are conservative Catholics or evangelicals.
Perhaps her most telling move has been dropping some of her father’s longest-serving, most loyal — and extreme — supporters from her party’s list of congressional candidates. She did so over his public protestations, via social media. “Her father placed her in a corner,” said Levitsky. “She doesn’t want a Le Pen moment” — a reference to the split between right-wing French politician Marine Le Pen and her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen — “when she is forced to really face him down and show she is in charge.”
As she walks a fine line between taking credit for her father’s achievements and distancing herself from his abuses, Keiko has also engaged in historical revisionism. Alberto committed “errors” rather than crimes, she says on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, his notorious state program of sterilizations intended to reduce poverty — a program that human rights campaigners say resulted in the bullying and tricking of hundreds of thousands of mainly poor, often indigenous, women into unwanted procedures — was betrayed, according to Keiko, by a handful of rogue doctors who ignored protocols.
“If I am in politics, it is because I know how to view history, not to defend and remain stuck in the past,” she said at an anti-corruption conference in February. “My father was president for 10 years. There were concrete achievements in the fight against terrorism, hyperinflation, and [reaching] the poorest localities in the country. As well as recognizing the achievements, I recognize that corruption strongly attacked the government.”
Many Peruvians are unconvinced. One is Zuliana Lainez, secretary-general of the National Association of Peruvian Journalists, who recalled the harassment of journalists during Alberto Fujimori’s time in power. That includes the army’s abduction of Gustavo Gorriti, the country’s leading investigative reporter, in 1992, during the self-coup. “Freedom of the press and respect for a diversity of views is not their [the Fujimoristas’] strong suit,” Lainez said. “Her party has always been extremely confrontational with critical journalists. Its democratic credentials are not the best and, as journalists, we need to be concerned and alert if Keiko becomes president.”
Few expect that a Keiko administration would repeat the worst abuses of her father. Some commentators actually believe that her government might not stray too far from the recipe of the last three: free market-led growth, weak institutions, and a president who, by and large, does not abuse her position.
“The risk is there because there aren’t the checks and balances, more than from the candidate herself,” Dargent said. Levitsky is careful to note the possibility of a revanchist administration, especially if Popular Force wins a congressional majority. However, he suspects that a new Fujimori government might not be particularly different from Humala’s — namely, it is likely to be “relatively weak, relatively moderate, very technocratic, and with a political deficit.”
Barring a late surge from the kind of outsider that disaffected voters here frequently hope for, Peru may be about to find out.