Peru to elect new president after heated campaign

Keiko Fujimori in pole position in election marked by protests and controversy

 

After a turbulent campaign that saw two candidates disqualified by electoral authorities and two more caught up in the Panama Papers revelations, Peru goes to the polls on Sunday to chose a new president.

Leading the race is Keiko Fujimori, the 40-year-old daughter of the country’s jailed former strongman Alberto Fujimori, who governed between 1990 and 2000. As the campaign entered its last week members of the family’s notoriously corrupt inner circle, including Keiko’s former campaign manager, were named in the Panama Papers, but the revelations have had little resonance among her largely poor voters.

Fujimori draws her support from those who still revere her father as the man who defeated the fanatical Maoist Shining Path guerrillas and ended hyper-inflation. Her campaign received a major boost when electoral authorities disqualified the candidate running closest to her, 45-year-old economist Julio Guzmán, because of a technical error in the registration of his candidacy.

That decision was all the more controversial as the electoral board also eliminated millionaire educational entrepreneur Cesar Acuña, who was running fourth in the polls, for breaching a new law against vote-buying. Opponents cried foul, claiming the board deliberately chose to ignore evidence that the Fujimori campaign is openly breaking the same law.

The controversy led Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organisation of American States, to classify the elections as “semi-democratic”. A request to bar Fujimori remains before the electoral board, increasing the sense of uncertainty surrounding the race.

But though Fujimori topped a final poll with 43 per cent support her candidacy has polarised the South American country. On Tuesday tens of thousands of Peruvians took to cities across the country to mark the 24th anniversary of her father’s “self-coup” in 1992 when he turned his presidency into a strongman dictatorship. He was finally removed in 2000 and in 2009 jailed for 25 years for his role in death squads and the widespread corruption that marked his rule.

Human rights

Aware that many Peruvians are fearful about her family’s return to power, Fujimori has worked hard in the last days of campaigning to place daylight between her candidacy and her father, despite being surrounded by many of his former colleagues. She has declared her “unrestricted respect for the democratic order and human rights” and promised that “never again will there be an April 5th” – the date of the Fujimori coup.

But though she leads heading into tomorrow’s first round most surveys show that, as in 2011, she will lack the votes to win outright, leaving her vulnerable to defeat in a second run-off round in June when the split anti-Fujimori vote could coalesce around one candidate.

After Julio Guzmán’s elimination by the electoral board, Peru’s business elite hoped this figure would be the 77-year-old economist Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who was also cited in the Panama Papers. But in a democracy deeply suspicious of representatives of the elite his candidacy has failed to catch fire and instead the favourite to join Fujimori in a run-off is left-winger Veronika Mendoza, who has surged in the race’s final stretch.

The 35-year-old congresswoman from the old Inca capital of Cusco promises to fight corruption and halt what many see as the sell-off of Peru’s mineral wealth to foreign miners, which has driven economic growth but caused years of social strife in the country’s highlands between multinationals backed by the authorities and local, often indigenous, communities who complain they see little benefit from the sector.

Mendoza has also vowed never to grant a pardon to Fujimori’s father, who at 77 is reportedly in poor health in prison, prompting Kuczynski to propose letting him serve the remainder of his sentence under house arrest.

But in one of South America’s most politically conservative cultures it is not clear if Kuczynski’s right-wing supporters would be willing to back Mendoza in a run-off. The scenario is a repeat of the 2011 presidential race when the country was left with a second round choice between Fujimori and Ollanta Humala, a former military officer whose indigenous nationalism and previous praise of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez made many people nervous.

But Humala won the presidency after his critics declared his candidacy the lesser evil to a Fujimori return. Despite strong economic growth during most of his term he will leave office with high disapproval ratings. Like Mendoza now, he ran for the presidency on a platform of reining in the mining sector. But once in power he shifted to the centre and worked closely with it. He has also seen his family caught up in corruption scandals. His chosen candidate Daniel Urresti abandoned the race because of a lack of support.

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