The return of Fujimori in Peru

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 3, 2016


Sixteen years after Alberto Fujimori resigned the presidency of Peru amid accusations of election-rigging and corruption, his daughter Keiko Fujimori is locked in a neck-to-neck presidential runoff race.


To win on June 5, Keiko will need to convince most Peruvians that she, unlike her father, is fully committed to democracy and human rights. Though most citizens have embraced the market-friendly economic model put in place by her father and many yearn for his heavy-handed approach toward combating crime, a majority still have reservations about electing another Fujimori into power.


Elected in 1990, Fujimori became the first Peruvian president of Japanese descent. Knick-named “El Cholo” for his indigenous looks, he came to power claiming to be a man of the people. Once in office, he embraced the neoliberal policies he campaigned against as a candidate. With Fujimori at the helm, the economy improved, hyperinflation was brought under control and the Shining Path Guerillas were defeated. When he controversially ordered Congress be shut down and became an authoritarian leader in 1992, he remained very popular. Under a custom-made constitution promulgated in 1993, Fujimori was re-elected in 1995. And after he succeeded in having the constitution reinterpreted, to allow him to seek a new term in 2000, he won a contested election amid accusations of vote-rigging. A series of corruption scandals that emerged later that year forced his resignation and he began a self-imposed exile in Japan.


Sixteen years on, Peru is a successful, emerging democracy. Three consecutive democratically elected presidents have completed their terms in office (including the outspoken — and now outgoing — anti-Fujimori President Ollanta Humala). Institutions have been strengthened, GDP per capita has almost doubled since 2000 and poverty has declined from more than 60 percent to around 20 percent. Though the end of the commodity boom has affected the economy, Peru is going through its best 16-year period in many decades.


Since Peruvians are eager to leave the difficult past behind — when human rights violations and terrorism were daily occurrences and corruption was rampant — it would seem almost contradictory that the daughter of the former strongman would be such a popular candidate. However, since most Peruvians perceive that presidents are accountable to the ruling class rather than the people, Keiko has successfully positioned herself as an outsider who promises to make the economy work for everyone.


What’s in a name?

Keiko, 40, was first elected to Congress in 2006, a few months after her father returned from Japan and landed in Chile, hoping to be allowed to return to Peru. Since she had assumed the official duties of first lady when her parents divorced, she was already well-known to Peruvians. In her political debut in 2006, Keiko received the highest share of the vote among all the candidates for the unicameral Peruvian Congress. Her family name was a force to be reckoned with, it turned out. Alberto Fujimori meanwhile returned to Peru and was sentenced to more than 30 years in prison on human rights violations and corruption charges.


In 2011, Keiko ran for the presidency, narrowly losing to Humala in the runoff. Since then, she has consistently polled as one of the most popular politicians in Peru. On April 10, she received 39.9 percent of the vote, ahead of all her rivals but short of the absolute majority needed to win the presidency in the first round.


In the runoff, she will face former Finance Minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynksi (PPK), who also ran for the presidency in 2011 and, in that year, supported Keiko in the runoff. Both Keiko and PPK support market-friendly policies. Keiko has played the age card this time out against her 77-year old rival while he has campaigned by linking Keiko to the memories of her father’s corrupt government. Since many of the people around Keiko also worked for her father, those accusations have stuck. According to recent polls, the race is in a dead heat.


Still, the election is Keiko’s to lose. She received close to 40 percent of the vote in the first round. Five years ago, she received 40 percent in the runoff. Yet, though her rise to fame is explained by the fact that she is the daughter of Alberto Fujimori, her family name could also deny her victory on June 5. Her negative ratings are higher than PPK’s. Many voters fear that with a Fujimori in the presidential palace, corruption will be widespread once again. Others still remember the human rights violations that took place under her father’s presidency. Keiko has promised that she will not use a presidential pardon to let her father out of prison, but many are dissatisfied and unhappy at the idea that a Fujimori could be the democratically elected president in Peru, just 16 years after her father resigned in disgrace.


Many things have changed in the world and Peru since 2000 — Fujimori resigned via fax. Peru has stronger institutions and a much healthier economy. People want new faces in politics too. Since 2006, the runner up in the previous election has gone on to become president five years later. It seems that Peruvians are warming up to the idea of a new president named Fujimori, but Keiko still needs to reassure them that her presidency will have none of the negative legacies left behind by her father.