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Divided over Fujimori legacy, Peru to vote

Nicolas Martin / jsApril 10, 2016

Peruvians are electing a new head of state, with Keiko Fujimori - whose father's legacy continues to divide the country - likely to emerge victorious in the first round of voting.

Keiko Fujimori Peru Wahlen Präsidentschaftswahlen Gegner
Image: Getty Images/AFP/C.Bouroncle

It seems Peruvian voters cannot count on anything these days. The situation is utterly chaotic in the run-up to the first round of presidential voting on Sunday. From the original list of 19 candidates, only ten now remain. And the National Electoral Tribunal has barred two of the candidates thought most likely to win the election from running because of illegal monetary gifts to voters.

"Faith in politics has suffered massively. Mistrust is enormous," said Jorge Arias, director of the Buenos Aires-based think tank Polilat.

One contributing factor is no doubt the fact that one of the candidates with the best chance of victory - Keiko Fujimori - has also handed out dirty electoral gifts. Moreover, the 40-year-old's name has appeared among the leaks connected to offshore shell companies brought to light in the Panama Papers. Nevertheless, the right-wing populist and daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori seems headed for victory in the first round of voting. Yet, her name polarizes.

Father's legacy

Just last Wednesday, tens of thousands took to the streets of the country's capital, Lima, to protest against Fujimori, who is simply known as Keiko. Her family name reminds many of despotism and violence. It was her father who took up the brutal fight against the terror organization "Shining Path" in the years between 1990 and 2000. His dirty war depopulated entire stretches of countryside and left deep scars among those remaining. It was not until 2009 that the judiciary sentenced the now 77-year-old Alberto Fujimori to 25 years in prison for human rights abuses and corruption.

In the eyes of many voters, Keiko Fujimori has not done enough to distance herself from her father. Nobel Prize winning author Mario Vargas Llosa has already warned of a return to dictatorship should Keiko manage to win the election.

Peru ehemaliger Präsident Alberto Fujimori mit Tochter Keiko
The happy family in June, 2007 - Keiko and her father Alberto FujimoriImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But recent polls suggest that Fujimori could garner upwards of 35 percent of the vote in the first round. "For many voters, the name Alberto Fujimori has positive connotations. It recalls his success in defeating 'Shining Path' and in his fight against poverty," says political scientist Elisabeth Bunselmeyer of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg.

But Keiko is running scared. In 2011 she reached the final ballot only to be dragged down by her father's legacy. To this day, many voters suspect that her first official act as president could be the signing of a pardon for her father. To quell such suspicion she recently delivered an almost bizarre statement of her commitment to uphold democratic order and to observe human rights, while speaking at a campaign rally being covered by press crews with their cameras rolling. Political scientist Bunselmeyer, however, assumes that many Peruvians will vote against her in the final run-off, "no matter who her opponent is."

Outside attack

The economically liberal ex-banker Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and the 35-year-old psychologist Verónika Mendoza, who are running for the leftists, currently stand the best chance of challenging Fujimori in the run-off election. Just a few weeks ago Mendoza was listed among the "others" running for office - now she is in a neck-and-neck race with the 77-year-old former Minister of Economy and Finance, Kuczynski. "Part of the population wants something other than the establishment. Therefore, it could well be that an outsider, representing something new, may win," says political scientist Fernando Tuesta of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.

Mendoza is promising to stop the influence of the business elite, foster small businesses and to make "radical constitutional changes." She was elected as a representative in 2011, as part of current President Ollanta Humala's coalition - but she distanced herself from his policies early on. Humala himself disappointed many of those who voted for him by going back on his promise of Socialism only to become a friend of free-market economics and continue the business-friendly policies of his predecessor. Growth rates averaging more than five percent over the past ten years have made Peru a darling for investors.

Kombobild Peru Präsidentschaftskandidaten
Psychologist Verónika Mendoza and ex-banker Pedro Pablo Kuczynski stand the best chance of defeating Fujimori in the run-off electionImage: Reuters/M. Bazo

Trust in democracy

But for the last two years economies throughout the whole of Latin America have been sputtering. Falling prices for raw materials and social conflicts connected to major projects have damaged the Peruvian people's trust in investors and the dream of economic growth. A large part of the citizenry is still employed informally. In 2014, some three-quarters of the population were working with no social security benefits and paying no taxes. Therefore the election has largely been about the question of whether to continue economic openness, or to change course, says political scientist Jorge Arias from Buenos Aires.

Keiko Fujimori promises that her "Peru Plan" will bring an "investment boom," and thus stands for a continuation. Peru is already well integrated into global markets thanks to a number of bilateral trade agreements. China, as is also the case in many other Latin American countries, is an even more important trading partner for Peru than the USA.

China's ascendency in the region is not universally looked upon with favor by the USA and other Western powers. But Jorge Arias does not believe that things will change. "The Asian behemoth is here to stay - a new president won't change that." Arias is also certain that the main task of any new president will be to restore faith in democracy and in politics.

A potential president with the name Fujimori would have a special responsibility. She would have to get deeply embattled opponents on board with her - in light of the trauma caused by her father's reign, that would seem like an almost impossible task.