Hillary Clinton is not the only former first lady running for president in the Americas.
Keiko Fujimori, who served as first lady of Peru in the 1990s during the presidency of her divorced father, is the leading candidate heading into the South American nation’s election April 10. And as might be expected, the Fujimori family’s first time in the presidential suite is looming large this election – for better and for worse.
Peruvians hold still-fresh memories of the many wrongdoings during Alberto Fujimori’s authoritarian decade in power, a time marked by extrajudicial killings, forced sterilizations and election tampering. But many Peruvians also remember how his government clamped down on terrorism, expanded social programs and introduced market-friendly reforms that brought the economy back from the verge of collapse.
The challenge for former First Lady Keiko Fujimori has been to distance herself from her father’s “mistakes and crimes” (as she puts it), and embrace his legacy of being tough on crime, open to business and friendly to the poor. After 16 years and a failed presidential bid in 2011, she appears to have finally struck the right balance for voters.
“Keiko has done a remarkable job of building a political party,” according to Julio Carrion, a professor of political science at the University of Delaware and editor of “The Fujimori Legacy: The Rise of Electoral Authoritarianism in Peru.” “They have a national organization, local and regional leaders (fueled by a clientelistic network), and a group of core leaders who have not suffered any serious splits and who are largely loyal to Keiko.”
Days before Peruvians go to the ballot boxes, the 40-year-old Fujimori holds a solid first place lead, with pollster Ipsos giving her 40.8 percent support in a simulated vote. If she fails to win more than 50 percent, the election will proceed to a second round runoff in June. Her nearest competitors are 77-year-old center-right former Prime Minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and a 35-year-old left-wing member of Congress, Verónika Mendoza. A group of other hopefuls trail behind, including former presidents Alan García and Alejandro Toledo.
Fujimori’s improbable path to the presidency began, arguably, even before the elder Fujimori’s term had ended, when in 2000 as first lady she began to publicly criticize the government’s once-untouchable security chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, which caused tensions within the cabinet. When a video showed Montesinos bribing a member of Congress, the elder Fujimori fled the country to avoid prosecution while his daughter could claim the moral high ground.
Since then, Fujimori has carefully groomed and promoted her image. She earned a master’s degree in business administration in 2006 from Columbia University, where she met her American husband with whom she now has two daughters. She held a seat in Congress from 2006 to 2011. She ran for president in 2011 but narrowly lost to current President Ollanta Humala, who can’t run for reelection now due to a constitutional rule against holding consecutive terms.
Fujimori’s family ties appeared to hurt her in the 2011 election, but she has since taken steps to portray herself as more independent and self-critical. She surprised many analysts by giving a speech at Harvard University last year in which she criticized her father’s government, saying his third election was a mistake, as was his support for Montesinos. In the run-up to this vote, she pushed out several long-time party stalwarts who were closely identified with the disgraced former regime.
But Fujimori still embraces the positive aspects of her father’s legacy. When he took office in 1990, Peru was suffering from hyperinflation and the economy was close to collapse. His government launched market-friendly reforms, including a wave of privatizations, which helped spur a commodity-rich economy boom. At the same time, he expanded social programs for the poor, a fact not lost on low-income voters today.
“For those who have not seen the fruits of Peru’s commodity boom, such as the urban and rural poor, the memory of her father’s government and his social programs is a motivating factor,” Carrion told AQ by email. “They think – rightly or wrongly – that Keiko is likely to replicate the vast network of state assistance that her father created.”
The elder Fujimori also all but eliminated terrorist groups such as the Shining Path, which had launched a bloody attempt to overturn the state. This legacy of being tough on crime is especially relevant today amid rising violence. The number of murders committed in Peru jumped 14 percent last year, according to a March 14 report from the U.S. Department of State, while assaults and robberies involving violence have also been on the rise over the last five years.
“People believe, and the polls are very clear in this regard, that she is the only one who can defeat the scourge of citizen insecurity in Peru,” added Carrion.
Regardless of whether that’s true, it’s undeniable that Fujimori got that reputation because of her father’s strong-handed policies during her tenure as first lady. Her espousal now of a reformed version of Fujimorism, especially in a region that gravitates toward personality-driven political ideologies like Peronism and Chavism, is winning over voters looking for a reliable name on an increasingly unpredictable ballot sheet.
“Their brand has a lot of appeal for a lot of Peruvians, as a mix of a practical/traditional macroeconomic approach, some social programs for poor regions, social conservatism, and the probability of an authoritarian approach to street crime,” said a political attaché at an embassy in Lima who asked not to be named. “Plus they are organized and have a plan, unlike many of their competitors.”
Kozak is a freelance journalist based in Lima, where he was bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for almost 17 years. He previously worked as a correspondent for Reuters in Mexico City, Ottawa and Toronto.