HUANTA, PERU - The front-runner in Peru’s presidential race danced through the streets of Huanta, an Andean town that her father, former hard-line President Alberto Fujimori, wrested from Shining Path rebels in a bloody conflict two decades ago.
Sporting a black felt hat ringed with yellow flowers, Keiko Fujimori won applause on a recent campaign stop at her mention of the “efficiency” with which her father — now disgraced and imprisoned — built schools and defeated the fanatical leftist insurgency.
“Her father remains in people’s hearts in the countryside because no other president gave them weapons, animals, seeds, food and clothing,” said Alejandro Ccente, a teacher from the nearby village of Uchuraccay.
For the 40-year-old Fujimori, her father’s legacy is a blessing and a curse.
The second-place finisher in the 2011 presidential race, Keiko Fujimori has the solid backing of one-third of Peruvians, polls say, and she is especially popular among the poor. But surveys also say she lacks the simple majority needed to win outright in the April 10 election in a field of 16 candidates.
They also put her in a virtual dead heat in a scheduled June 5 runoff with her closest challenger, former Inter-American Development Bank economist and Deputy Minister Julio Guzman.
Many Peruvians simply cannot separate the younger Fujimori from her father, who is serving concurrent 25-year prison terms for corruption and sanctioning death squads. They don’t believe she has divorced herself from her father’s corrupt coterie and distrust her seemingly permanent campaign smile.
“She lived amid corruption and never said a thing,” said Norma Azparrent, who was among several dozen protesters taking part in an anti-Fujimori demonstration in the regional capital of Ayacucho during the January campaign swing. “She has deceived all the peasants, making them believe her father’s government built schools with public funds when they stole a lot more.”
Azparrent’s father, Fermin Azparrent, was Ayacucho mayor when he was assassinated in 1989 by Shining Path rebels. He had also been critical of rights abuses by government security forces.
Azparrent stands with Peruvians who fear that Keiko Fujimori as president would pardon her father and that his discredited syndicate would then insinuate itself back into power.
At Harvard University in September, the candidate surprised many by pronouncing as “positive” for Peru a 2003 truth commission report harshly critical of her father’s 1990-2000 rule.
After all, when just a teenager she became his first lady in 1994 after her parents split in an ugly episode in which her mother accused him of ordering her tortured. Keiko Fujimori dismisses claims she will revive a hard-line regime that pillaged the Treasury and violated human rights.
“If I’m elected president of Peru, it will be I who governs,” she declared during the campaign stop in Huanta.
She has said she will not pardon her father, who trampled democracy as president by shutting down Congress, spying on journalists and even kidnapping one, looting the Treasury and engineering re-election by paying tabloids to defame opponents. Fujimori fled into exile in 2000 after videos emerged of his spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, buying the loyalty of politicians and business executives.
Yet Keiko Fujimori denies her father committed any crimes.
She says he only made mistakes, the biggest being allowing Montesinos too much power.
Montesinos is also imprisoned on multiple convictions, including running guns to Colombian rebels and organizing death squads.
But it is not just the legacy of her father and Montesinos that dogs Fujimori’s candidacy. The very composition of her party’s leadership raises doubts about her pledge of zero corruption.
Joaquin Ramirez, the congressman serving as secretary general of her Fuerza Popular party, is under investigation for suspected money laundering, while the top congressional candidate on her list, incumbent Cecilia Chacon, has been fighting charges of illicit enrichment for 14 years. And that’s just upper management.
Fujimori herself has been questioned over how her father was able to afford the $1.2 million it cost to give her and her three siblings U.S. educations.
In a January forum on corruption attended by candidates, the mother of 7- and 9-year-old daughters acknowledged “there can be some doubts. But I want to say that I have suffered and carried a heavy load due to other’s mistakes. . . . I will not let my daughters bear the same load.”
Transparency International has estimated Alberto Fujimori stole $600 million from the state, hardly any of it recovered. Anti-corruption state attorneys say the 104 fugitives from justice from his government include four of Keiko Fujimori’s aunts and uncles as well as a cousin.
The Fujimori legacy stirs great passion in Peru, with small anti-Fujimori protests repeatedly flaring during the campaign.
In Ayacucho, where the Shining Path was born, Azparrent and the other protesters greeted the candidate on a central square with shouts of “Father and daughter, the same garbage!” In the southern city of Arequipa, a top campaign official called the protesters “terrorists.”
Married to 39-year-old American real-estate developer Mark Villanella, whom she met while both were MBA students at Columbia University, Fujimori has never worked in the private sector. In 2006 she was elected to Congress with more votes than any congressional candidate has ever received.
In 2011, she lost the presidency by just 3 percentage points.
Inside her Fuerza Popular movement, there is an intense rivalry between the “Keikistas,” who favor her, and the “Albertistas,” who are loyal to her father.
Political scientist Milagros Rejas thinks that if Fujimori wins the presidency she will face a difficult dilemma, as the Albertistas will exert intense pressure to pardon her 77-year-old father, she said.
But ordering him freed would effectively sideline her — and disgust most Peruvians, Rejas said.
“She would be putting a noose around her neck.”