LIMA – The name Alberto Fujimori, if it still means anything in international circles, tends to conjure up harsh terms associated with the dark side of his presidency: crook, thug, murderer.
To much of the population in his native Peru, though, the name means something entirely different — the man who crushed a brutal guerrilla insurgency, ended hyperinflation and paved the way for a two-decade economic boom.
This is why his daughter, 40-year-old Keiko Fujimori, has surged to a commanding lead over a pack of 18 rivals vying for the presidency in April’s vote, some five years after her previous bid came up a few points short. She has toned down some elements of her stance on her father’s administration this time around, making it a bit more nuanced, a bit more balanced, but the basic tenets of it remain much the same: Alberto Fujimori, now 77 and in poor health, is a great man who was wronged when he was thrown into the jail cell he lives in near Lima for the death-squad killings of suspected terrorist sympathizers.
They call Keiko “La China” (the Chinese woman), a play on the nickname they had for her father, “El Chino.” And while the name is tinged with a hint of racism — the Fujimoris are, after all, of Japanese, not Chinese, descent — it is employed largely as a term of endearment, a show of just how powerful the bond remains between Peruvians and the family some 16 years after the strongman fled the country in an attempt to avoid being detained. Growing concern now about a pickup in crime has only served to deepen the attachment and bolster the younger Fujimori’s allure to voters. Crime ranks as Peruvians’ No. 1 concern, according to a recent survey by the country’s statistics agency.
“The last strong and authoritarian government was Alberto Fujimori and that’s sort of what people are looking for,” said Maria Isabel Remy, a sociologist at the Institute of Peruvian Studies in Lima. There has been something of a “re-reading” of his presidency of late, she said.
Keiko Fujimori was a key public figure in that administration. She would come to play a first lady-like role, overseeing state dinners and accompanying her father on trips overseas, after her parents separated in 1994. She studied abroad, earning degrees first at Boston University and then Columbia University, before returning to Peru and earning a congressional seat in 2006. Five years later, she lost the presidency in a run-off vote to Ollanta Humala.
Fujimori retains the pro-business, free-market and fiscally conservative policies that her father implemented and successive presidents upheld. The effects of those policies — wiping out inflation, spurring growth and fostering an emerging middle class — mean none of the leading candidates are proposing a departure now. Peru’s economy, while hobbled by the collapse in prices on its commodity exports, is forecast to outperform all major peers in Latin America this year, as it has for most of the past decade.
Recent polls suggest Fujimori is widening her lead. She had the backing of 39 percent of participants in a survey conducted by Datum and released Wednesday. Of her closest rivals, economist Julio Guzman had 20 percent of the likely vote; former Finance Minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski had 13 percent; and Cesar Acuna, a private-university tycoon, had 9 percent. Alan Garcia, a two-time president, was mired in the middle of the pack, taking just 5 percent in the poll. If no candidate wins 50 percent of the ballots cast in the April 10 vote, the two front-runners will compete in a run-off in June.
Her father has been following the campaign from the prison cell he has occupied outside Lima for almost a decade. He was convicted for ordering two massacres by government-linked death squads as guerrillas were approaching Lima and has also received sentences for kidnapping, embezzlement and bribery. He has appealed many of the rulings.
Keiko has started making overtures to voters put off by her father’s authoritarian legacy. She has criticized the forced sterilization under his rule of women in poor Andean communities and commended the investigation of civil war atrocities by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “I know how to look at the past,” she said last month at a conference on corruption in Lima. “I know which are the good decisions and also the chapters that must never be written again.”
She even left the staunchest defenders of her father’s government off her list of parliamentary candidates last month. The elder Fujimori didn’t like that move much — he told her so in a letter that his lawyer publicly released — but Steven Levitsky, a Harvard professor specializing in Latin America, called it the boldest move of her campaign, part of an effort to move to the center of the political spectrum.
Then there is the issue of her father’s imprisonment. Prior to the 2011 campaign, she had floated the idea of pardoning him. This time, her tack is a bit more subtle. If elected, she says, the Fujimori family will continue its legal battle to prove his innocence.