Peruvians choose their new president on Sunday amid dire warnings that frontrunner Keiko Fujimori, if she wins, would oversee surging corruption and cocaine money penetrating the highest levels of government.
Polls currently put the daughter of jailed 1990s strongman Alberto Fujimori narrowly in front of her only rival in the runoff election, Pedro Pablo Kuczysnki, a 77-year-old Wall Street investor and former prime minister.
Keiko has been careful to distance her Popular Force party from some of her father’s most controversial actions, including his 1992 shuttering of congress, running death squads, and massive corruption. But the 40-year-old former congresswoman has based much of her campaign on her father’s populist right-wing legacy, including the claim that he crushed the Maoist Shining Path insurgents.
The candidate pledges to crack down on rising violent crime, including declaring a state of emergency in the Peruvian capital, Lima, and sending the military to patrol the streets. She has also talked of bringing back the death penalty, although she lacks the congressional supermajority for the necessary constitutional amendment.
“We have to be confrontational in the struggle against this plague,” Keiko said in a presidential debate with Kuczysnki, on Sunday. “In a Popular Force government, we will confront and defeat crime with political will, with leadership, and with the support of the forces of order.”
Yet some of her policies, alongside recent revelations about the sketchy dealings of her two closest political confidants — including an alleged link with high level drug traffickers and manipulating the media to falsely smear critics — have many Peruvians questioning Keiko’s commitment to fighting crime.
An investigation broadcast last month on the US Spanish-language network Univision and Peruvian current affairs show Cuarto Poder revealed that the US Drug Enforcement Administration is investigating Popular Force’s general secretary, Joaquín Ramírez, for money-laundering.
Ramírez is thought to be the party’s principal financier. Its headquarters are housed in one of his properties and Keiko travels the campaign trail in one of his SUVs.
Keiko’s new electoral alliances with various groups operating on the fringes of the law have also fueled concerns about the rule of law, and even democracy, should she become president.
The candidate has sought ties to the illegal wildcat gold miners who have poisoned large swathes of the Peruvian Amazon, and is allied with a construction union leader under investigation for extortion.
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Meanwhile, Peruvian media has revealed that prosecutors are investigating five of Popular Force’s new cohort of 73 members of congress for money laundering. The contingent, elected in May, gave the party a narrow absolute majority in the country’s 130-member single chamber legislature.
Reports have also circulated that the building that houses the party’s offices in Lima’s most populous district, San Juan de Lurigancho, belongs to a notorious group of local gangsters.
Separately, public safety experts have warned that Keiko would be handicapping the corruption-plagued police if she follows through on her campaign promise to reverse a reform stopping the widespread practice of underpaid officers working as private security guards, in their official uniforms, on their days off.
The practice, first permitted by Alberto Fujimori during his 1990-2000 presidency to save money, is blamed for eroding trust in the service.
It has all provided Keiko’s rival on Sunday with ample ammunition to claim that she represents the threat of turning Peru into a “narco state.”
“We must block the path of a return to dictatorship, to corruption and lies,” he said during Sunday’s debate.
Concerns about a Keiko victory have also persuaded candidates who were in the first round elections in April to throw their weight behind Kuczysnki, even if they don’t like his policies.
“She [Keiko] has no moral authority,” left wing former candidate Veronika Mendoza said in a press conference. “Fujimori is completely compromised by corruption, by the mafia, by drug trafficking.”
Julio Guzmán, a centrist candidate who was excluded from the first round race on a technicality just as he had pulled level with Keiko, also called for a vote against her.
“Kuczysnki is an adversary in democracy while Fujimorismo is a threat to democracy,” he told local newspaper, La República.
Popular Force’s alleged authoritarianism also goes hand in hand with its aversion to scrutiny and the corruption that permits.
If the allegations against Ramírez were troubling, Popular Force’s response to them prompted even more criticism.
After three days of stalling from Keiko, Ramírez eventually stood down as general secretary at a tense press conference in which he denied the allegations and refused to take questions. Using a Spanish slang term for a dark-skinned mestizo, he claimed he was being victimized by white critics for being a “cholo with money.”
Ramírez, a former fare collector on a Lima bus, has been unable to explain the source of his wealth.
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It even emerged in a leaked police report that he had claimed to have lost all the documentation that would prove his business success was legitimate in a taxi fire in 2014 — one week after Peruvian prosecutors had launched their own probe into his alleged asset-laundering.
Under intense media pressure, Keiko justified her political friendship with Ramírez by insisting she had “never” asked any party donor how they had come by their money.
To make things worse, Keiko’s vice presidential candidate, José Chlimper, was then found to be behind a manipulated audio recording aired on a local TV show, The Things As They Are, which appeared aimed at undercutting the allegations against Ramírez.
The recording was of a Peruvian pilot based in Miami called Jesús Vasquéz, who is also the DEA informant who made the allegations against Ramírez. Vasquéz had claimed that Ramírez told him he had once laundered $15 million for Keiko.
In it, Vazquéz is heard saying: “What I said is false.”
The problem, however, was that one of the show’s producers, Mayra Albán, subsequently resigned, saying that the audio had come from a USB provided by Keiko’s running mate. The USB also contained the full version in which Vasquéz actually says: “They say that what I said is false.”
Chlimper, sometimes viewed as one of Popular Force’s most astute and honorable leaders, eventually admitted handing over the USB but denied knowing it contained doctored evidence.
The development was too much for El Comercio, the conservative newspaper of the Peruvian elite, which backed Keiko to the hilt during her 2011 unsuccessful presidential bid.
In an editorial, the paper said that it was “difficult to exaggerate the seriousness of the chain of revelations” that had hopelessly compromised Popular Force’s two most senior figures after Keiko herself.
The constant drip of revelations appears to have united the large swathe of Peruvians who view a return of Fujimorismo to power with horror. On Tuesday, an estimated 100,000 protestors of all political stripes marched peacefully in downtown Lima chanting “Keiko doesn’t pass” and “No narco-state”.
Their concerns are shared by Walter Alban, a former interior minister who now heads the Peruvian branch of anti-graft group Transparency International. He believes that, despite some valiant judges and prosecutors, the weak state of Peru’s judiciary and Popular Force’s congressional majority mean there would be limited checks and balances on Keiko if she becomes president.
“We need to prepare for a very sensitive situation where the only guarantee that we don’t become a narco-state is a proactive citizenry that stands up against corruption and for human rights,” Alban said.
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Eduardo Dargent, a political scientist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, added that although he ruled out a return of the worst excesses of the 1990s, including closing down congress, Peruvian democracy could be in for a rocky period.
“We can’t let our guard drop. Given the track record of the Fujimoristas, and the worrying way they have reacted to these revelations on the campaign trail, we need to be very alert,” he said. “It could be a thuggish government. I don’t think they would close down media outlets but they could certainly be capable of exercising pressure to force editors to step down.”
With the vote just three days away, such concerns do not appear to have impacted Keiko’s support among the largely poor voters who still revere her father.
The last polls allowed to be published in Peru, one week before the election, showed Keiko beating Kuczysnki by around four points.
“Alberto Fujimori was the only one who did anything for Peru,” said Jorge Martínez, a Lima taxi driver and hard core Fujimorista who served in the army and fought the Shining Path. “When he took power, no one would have bet a single Sol for Peru. He sorted the problem out.”
Martínez — who described Fujimori’s 25-year prison sentence as “political revenge” — even justified the rampant corruption. “The money he stole was from the narcos,” he said.