LIMA, Peru — Pedro Pablo Kuczynski won Peru’s presidential election last year thanks to his image as an honest technocrat who would fight corruption and uphold rule of law.
Part of that appeal was based on his campaign pledge not to pardon his jailed predecessor Alberto Fujimori, the 1990s hard-right strongman who oversaw rampant graft, death squads and vote-rigging.
Now, just 16 months into his five-year term, Kuczynski is talking up the possibility of freeing Fujimori, who is nine years into a 25-year sentence, on the grounds that he does not want the 79-year-old former autocrat to die behind bars. Fujimori has suffered various health scares in prison but nothing deemed unusual for someone of his age.
“A reprieve is something humanitarian. It is not a pardon,” Kuczynski, an Oxford and Princeton-educated former Wall Street banker and senior World Bank official, insisted in one of his numerous recent statements on the issue. “We are reviewing the gentleman’s health.” This month, his justice minister Enrique Mendoza even suggested that the president could, with zero red tape, effectively decree Fujimori’s liberation.
Yet numerous critics here warn that such leniency would be illegal under national and international law, leave an indelible stain on Kuczynski’s legacy, and harm efforts to tackle human rights abuses and widespread corruption.
“A pardon cannot be the triumph of impunity, the legitimation of a crime, or the acceptance of who committed it,” Aldo Vásquez Ríos, a Peruvian legal scholar and former justice minister has warned. He says that Fujimori, as someone convicted of crimes against humanity, is not eligible for a regular pardon, and any reprieve on grounds of ill health would require the former president to be certified as seriously or terminally sick by a panel of independent doctors.
Fujimori remains a highly divisive figure in Peru, revered for tackling hyperinflation and presiding over the crushing of the Shining Path terrorists but loathed for the disappearance of billions of dollars from public coffers and his authoritarian style, including shuttering Congress and the courts.
Many remain baffled by Kuczynski’s determination to free the former president given the high political cost. One recent poll found 62 percent of Peruvians in favor of a reprieve of some sort. However, 88 percent believe the former president should signal his remorse on leaving prison, an improbable outcome given Fujimori’s consistent vehement denials of the many accusations against him.
Some believe Kuczynski’s real intent may be to split the opposition Fujimorista Popular Force party, which dominates Congress, at a time when Peruvian politics has become increasingly febrile and many warn that democracy is in peril.
Popular Force, led by Fujimori’s 42-year-old daughter Keiko, who was a close runner-up to Kuczynski last year, has 71 seats out of 130 in Peru’s single-chamber legislature — despite only receiving 36 percent of the popular vote. It has been using that majority to destabilize the government and other public institutions, including sacking ministers on what most commentators regard as spurious grounds. The party is now trying to do the same with the attorney general just as prosecutors are making headway in two corruption investigations against Keiko.
That bitter politicking along with what critics characterize as Kuczynski’s frequent flip-flopping and verbal gaffes have seen the president’s approval rating free fall from around 70 percent a year ago to the low 30s now.
The supposed logic of reverting that tendency through freeing the Fujimori patriarch revolves around the deep tensions within the Fujimori family.
Keiko, who rarely talks in public, is reputed to have fallen out with her father, who she seldom visits in jail, and to view his release as a threat to her electoral chances in the 2021 elections and her own tight control over Popular Force.
However, her younger brother, Kenji – the member of Congress with the most votes under Peru’s electoral list system – is close to his father and on good terms with Kuczynski. He was just suspended, for the second time, from Popular Force for publicly criticizing the party’s ultra-conservative policies on issues including child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church and LGBT rights.
It is thought that around 20 members of Popular Force’s congressional bloc are primarily loyal to Kenji and Fujimori, enough to cost the party its majority should they break away from the Keikistas.
But if that is Kuczynski’s strategy, it is “simplistic” and “full of ifs,” says pollster Giovanna Peñaflor. Key among those is the assumption that once free, Fujimori would indeed split Popular Force rather than come to an agreement with his daughter to maintain the party’s unity.
“The government thinks that its problem with its credibility is down to the opposition,” Peñaflor says. “It is true that many of Kuczynski’s problems do come from Congress, but also that they could have been tougher with him.” Many of his problems, she says, are the result of his own mistakes.
An example of that may be the president’s contentious replacement of his entire advisory Commission on Presidential Pardons. Kuczynski was entitled to make the move, which included removing at least three members opposed to liberating Fujimori.
But the panel swiftly became the target of ridicule when it emerged the commission’s new chairman was an unknown 92-year-old with no background in penal issues who was at a loss to explain his appointment.
One of those questioning Kuczynski’s thinking is Gisela Ortiz, whose brother, a university student believed erroneously to be a terrorist, was “disappeared” in 1992 by security agents under orders from Fujimori.
The president himself may be mulling that very risk to Peru’s rule of law – as well as his own legacy – as he contemplates an escape from the political corner that, many commentators believe, he has painted himself into regarding the fate of his polarizing predecessor.