Peruvians head to the polls Sunday in what is a hotly contested election.
Front-runner Keiko Fujimori, who favors free-market economics and iron-fisted security policies, has held a steady and significant lead in the race. In the most recent polls by Ipsos — which cannot be published in Peru in the days leading up to the election — Keiko has 37 percent of the vote, a slight dip from earlier polls that had her up to 40 percent of the vote. Her two closest competitors are in a statistical dead heat. International businessman and former minister of economy Pedro Pablo Kuczynski is polling at 20.3 percent, while left-leaning Verónica Mendoza, who promises to change the pro-business constitution and emphasizes social justice for the country’s have-nots, is polling at 20.1 percent.
While Keiko Fujimori is polling at near double either of her rivals, it is highly unlikely that she will get the simple majority required to win in the first round vote on Sunday. In a runoff contest, Fujimori is significantly more vulnerable. Of the three candidates, she receives the highest “anti-vote” of all: 51% say they would definitively not vote for her. In comparison, 41 percent say they would not vote for Kuczynski, and 44 percent say they would not vote for Mendoza.
It is not a foregone conclusion, but the candidate who wins the coveted second position in Sunday’s vote may very well be the country’s next president. Keiko Fujimori knows this well: in the 2011 election, while she was the highest vote-getter in the first round vote, she was defeated in the runoff against Ollanta Humala. In an effort to avoid a similar scenario, she has tried to soften her image and mark a certain distance with the legacy of the government of her father, Alberto Fujimori. It is that legacy that is both Keiko’s greatest strength and also her greatest weakness. While her father is still revered among an important segment of Peruvians for improving the economy and defeating terrorism, others view him as a corrupt dictator who abused power for personal gain. In 2009, he was convicted for human rights violations and massive corruption during his ten year regime between 1990 and 2000, and he remains imprisoned in a special police facility on the outskirts of Lima.
Protesters carry signs saying "No to Keiko, never again." Photo: Reuters
Indeed, last Tuesday, marking the 24th anniversary of the April 5 coup carried out by Alberto Fujimori, in which he shut down Congress and took over the Judiciary with the backing of the army; Peruvians across the country staged massive protests against Keiko Fujimori and a possible return of fujimorismo. Whatever the second-round scenario — Fujimori versus Mendoza or Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, anti-Fujimori activists will not hold back in their efforts to prevent Fujimori from becoming Peru’s next president.
In the run-up to the second round, they will remind voters of the fact that Fujimori was the First Lady of the Fujimori regime between 1994 and 2000. They will remind them that she admitted to taking cash from Fujimori’s spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, to pay for her college education. They will remind them that when she was First Lady, some 300,000 poor Indigenous women were forcibly sterilized by the government. They will remind them that she did not denounce the massive corruption and human rights violations that occurred during her father’s regime, and only recently has started referring to these as “errors” (not “crimes”) in an effort to distance herself from these negative aspects of her father’s legacy. Keiko Fujimori herself felt compelled last week to sign an agreement promising not to carry out a coup and to respect human rights and freedom of the press.
But the fear-mongering campaign against Verónica Mendoza seen in recent weeks as she began climbing in the polls will also intensify. Fujimori supporters have accused Mendoza of being a terrorist —a hazardous charge in a country in which Shining Path terrorists killed tens of thousands of people in their campaign to impose agrarian communism in Peru in the 1980s and 1990s. Fake photographs and videos have also appeared in an outlandish attempt to connect Mendoza to long-imprisoned Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán and his violent strategies. Suffice it to say, Mendoza was born the same year Guzmán launched his violent revolution, and 12 when Guzmán was arrested and his revolutionary plan imploded and devolved into a band of mercenaries in the service of drug trafficking.
Meanwhile, in Peru: Attacks on Leftist Veronika Mendoza Boosts Her Popularity | News | teleSUR English https://t.co/jLmB29DBpk— GMB Young London (@GMBYoungLondon) April 4, 2016
Such red-baiting strategies are clearly an effort to push moderate voters into supporting Keiko Fujimori in the eventuality she ends up facing Verónica Mendoza in the run-off vote. This kind of fear-mongering was a classic strategy used by the Fujimori government to discredit opponents and undermine their ability to challenge his authoritarian and corrupt regime. Reliance on such strategies reveals an utter lack of creativity on the part of the Fujimori camp.
This fear-mongering is a striking contrast to Mendoza’s message of hope and restoring citizen confidence in the state by ensuring transparent, honest government and creating policies to address poverty and unemployment. She says she wants to move the country away from its over-reliance on mining and toward sustained agricultural development. Of all the candidates, she is the only one to frontally challenging the existing neoliberal economic model. But this, of course, makes many Peruvians wary, given the extreme instability the country experienced in the late 1980s after Alan García’s failed heterodox economic experiments.
The Sunday elections will determine whether Peruvians have a choice between two candidates who favor a continuation of that model, as would be the case if it were Keiko Fujimori versus Kuczynski, or whether they will have a choice between two candidates with quite different views about just about everything.
Jo-Marie Burt is Director of Latin American Studies and Associate Professor of Political Science at George Mason University and a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Follow her on Twitter @jomaburt.