Corruption and Legacy in Lima
As voters in Peru head to the polls, the country might elect a controversial candidate — Keiko Fujimori. But has she convinced the electorate that she’s shed the shady past of her father’s presidency?
LIMA — For a candidate with a compelling need to prove her personal integrity, Keiko Fujimori has been running an odd campaign ahead of Peru’s June 5 presidential runoff election. The key challenge weighing her down — a “very large rucksack,” as she has described it — is the profoundly corrupt legacy of her father, former right-wing strongman Alberto Fujimori who was imprisoned for 25 years in 2009 for serious human rights violations and bribing crooked journalists to attack his opponents. It was during his time as president of Peru, from 1990 to 2000, that $600 million of state funds vanished without a trace. Meanwhile, his principal aide used to film himself using bribes and blackmail to co-opt key public servants, including members of the Peruvian Congress.
If Fujimori, a 41-year-old former congresswoman, has an Achilles heel, then, it is the perception that she and her loyal Popular Force party are venal characters vying to reinstate the legacy of her father and are interested in power largely to raid public coffers. Since crushing a splintered field in the first round of presidential elections in April, taking 40 percent of the vote, her commitment to clean politics and the rule of law — demonstrated by theatrically signing a document guaranteeing freedom of the press and respect for democratic norms — has come under heavy scrutiny. Her clientelistic deal-making with shady interest groups operating on the fringes of the law, along with Popular Force’s new outright majority in Peru’s 130-member, single-chamber Congress, has left many voters, desperate for a firm hand to guide a country plagued by organized crime, cocaine trafficking, and, rampant graft, worried about a repeat of Fujimori senior’s abuses if she becomes president.
But ahead of Sunday’s runoff vote, Fujimori appears to have abandoned her efforts to cultivate an image of a kinder, gentler — and law-abiding — Fujimorismo. Last month, reports surfaced that Joaquín Ramírez, Popular Force’s general secretary and principal financier, is under investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on suspicion of money laundering. According to the Spanish-language U.S. network Univision and the Peruvian current affairs show Cuarto Poder, Ramírez was caught on an undercover DEA wire admitting to laundering $15 million for Fujimori during her failed 2011 presidential bid. Ramírez is one of Fujimori’s closest confidants; her campaign headquarters are housed in one of his properties, and she rides around in one of his SUVs. The DEA, subsequently, issued a brief statement denying Fujimori was under investigation but pointedly avoiding any reference to Ramírez.
With the corruption and dirty deals that seem to follow Fujimori wherever she goes, the biggest risk for her heading into Sunday’s vote is that she will lose the backing of new supporters who believed her promises to respect the democratic order and crack down on crime. Her lead in the polls is narrow at best, and with an electorate deeply polarized by the Fujimorista legacy, these are the votes that could spell the difference between victory and defeat.
Still, if the Ramírez revelations have shone a harsh light on Fujimori’s commitment to the rule of law, then her recent electoral alliances appear only to have confirmed the trend of possible corruption. These alliances include winning the backing of a union leader allegedly linked to extortion in the construction industry and a public deal with the gold miners responsible for poisoning waterways and ravaging the Amazon in illegal operations. At a rally in Lima, she told the crowd that the state should stop putting “obstacles” — environmental regulations — in the miners’ way and vowed to reverse an attempt by the outgoing administration of President Ollanta Humala to formalize them. Separately, Fujimori has vowed to halt an ongoing reform of the police, an institution viewed with contempt by many Peruvians for its endemic graft and routine incompetence.
Fujimori’s critics have been quick to throw cold water on her promises to tackle crime. On the campaign trail, she has proposed restoring the death penalty and insisted she would be willing to declare a state of emergency in Lima, if necessary, and to send military patrols to crime hotspots. Former chief anti-corruption prosecutor Julio Arbizu warns that no one should be taken in by Fujimori’s populist posturing as someone who would attack crime with an iron fist. “Fujimorismo is essentially a corrupt organization,” Arbizu says, emphasizing that the movement is beyond redemption. “That is why its senior members joined the party. That is also why it’s not possible to talk about new and old Fujimorismo, as though the organization has changed its culture.”
Another prominent figure unimpressed with Fujimori’s hard-line law-and-order agenda is Richard Ortega, the national secretary of SUPP, Peru’s main police union. “Crime is a complicated problem. Her father prostituted the police and armed forces and embezzled the military-police pension fund,” he says. “Why should anyone believe Keiko now?” Cynthia McClintock, a political science professor specializing in Peru at George Washington University, says Fujimori’s clientelistic horse-trading is “scary,” adding, “This is a clear portent of what would happen if she wins, making unsavory agreements with people engaged in criminal activity.”
Yet Fujimori’s recent attempts to shore up her base — consisting mostly of poor voters across the country who revere her father for ending hyperinflation and defeating the Maoist Shining Path, whose nihilistic violence unleashed a civil war that claimed 69,000 lives — suggest she is rattled after losing the substantial lead she built up ahead of April’s first round. In that contest, she took almost twice as much as center-right former Prime Minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, her opponent in Sunday’s runoff. Now, after initially being in a statistical tie in the first weeks after that vote, she has once again taken the lead, by around five points, against the wonky 77-year-old businessman. Kuczynski, meanwhile, appears to have picked up votes from several other first-round candidates, including one on the far left, whose only point of agreement is that Fujimorismo’s return to power would be a risky backward step for Peru.
Fujimori has also defied conventional political strategy by tacking further right as the runoff vote looms. At a rally in May organized by Alberto Santana, an ultra-conservative evangelical preacher with a knack for outrageous public statements, she ditched previous commitments to allow abortion for rape victims and back same-sex civil unions. Santana also told the crowd, in front of Fujimori, that homosexuality was an “aberration” and blamed gays for “the pink plague” — AIDS. These moves may shore up Fujimori’s right flank, though she did subsequently seek to distance herself from Santana’s fire-and-brimstone rhetoric.
But, in a tight race, the Ramírez revelations may yet knock her off course. Her handling of the scandal has been less than skillful, perhaps because she has, until now, given only a handful of media interviews and never been seriously challenged on such basic issues as her murky campaign finances, whether she would pardon her father, and even the financing of her undergraduate education.
Minutes after the broadcast of the Ramírez report, Fujimori called into Cuarto Poder live to claim the allegation was “absolutely false” and part of a “dirty war.” She accused Kuczynski of planting the scoop. “If they think that because I am a woman, they can affect me with these kinds of accusations, they are wrong,” she said. “They will not stop me.” She then appeared to hang up on the presenters, before regaining her composure and calling back into the show.
After three days of mounting pressure, Ramírez, whose mysterious rise from charging fares on Lima buses to real estate mogul has long attracted suspicion, eventually agreed to temporarily step down as Popular Force general secretary. In a defiant speech, the congressman, like his party leader, sought to paint himself as the victim. Using a Spanish term for a mestizo Latin American, he claimed he was being targeted simply because he was a “cholo with money.”
Whether most Peruvians believe that will likely be a defining question in a race set to go right down to the wire. With endemic corruption already undermining citizens’ faith in public institutions, the outcome of the election could hardly be more critical for Peru. Whether Fujimori or Kuczynski wins, Peru’s next president will need to be seen as serious about tackling graft. Yet Fujimori, it seems, would be starting that task with a handicap that goes far beyond the “backpack” handed to her by her father.
Photo credit: MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images