Peru must, I think, have the most dysfunctional democracy I have encountered yet on my travels. And after the US, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras, that’s saying something.

Tomorrow Peruvians go to the polls to decide how to vote in their Presidential election. There are only two candidates left: Ollanta Humala, a left-wing military officer and previous presidential candidate, and “Keiko”.

Keiko propaganda

Keiko propaganda - below is grafited "corruption" and "murderer"

“Keiko” is now such a household brand in Peru that nobody need say her family name: Fujimori. A name that could – or at least should – strike fear into many Peruvians. As President of Peru throughout the 1990s, Keiko’s father Alberto Fujimori first enacted wide-ranging neoliberal reforms, called the Fujishock. Electricity costs quintupled, water prices rose eightfold, and gasoline prices rose 3000%. Yet Peru was made safe for international capitalism. Then, feeling that Congress was holding him back, with the support of the military he carried out a presidential coup, which was roundly condemned by the international community. Strangely – and this is the worrying thing about the Peruvian national mindset – the coup was welcomed by the public, according to numerous polls.

Fujimori can be “credited” with ridding Peru of the Shining Path Maoist rebels. But that goal was achieved by killing them and anyone remotely in the way. And so a generation of Peruvians were scarred by violence, at least half of it committed by the military. As a consequence, Fujimori is now in prison on human rights abuse charges.
But that’s not how his presidency ended. He resigned in 2000 by fax from a hotel room in Tokyo after he was embroiled in a bribery scandal.

A few years before, Fujimori had separated from his wife Susana Higuchi in a noisy, public divorce where he formally stripped her of the title First Lady and gave it to Keiko instead. Higuchi publicly denounced Fujimori as a “tyrant” and claimed that his administration was corrupt. There were intimations that she herself had been tortured.

And one issue that stays with many people, especially the many scarred for life, is the Fujimori government’s coerced sterilisations of 100s of thousands of rural (mainly indigenous) people.

So, this is the legacy that Keiko defends when she calls her father “Peru’s best president ever”, a remark she was forced to back-track on.

Ms. Fujimori’s spokesman Jorge Trelles didn’t help matters when he said of Mr. Fujimori’s record. “We killed fewer people than the two prior governments”. Trelles was subsequently removed from his post, but the fact is that Keiko’s popularity rides on the back of her father’s perceived strength and toughness. More popular appeal comes from her being perceived as a sympathetic, young, perhaps slightly exotic movie-star-like female figure, and a faithful daughter. Propaganda is full of her hugging indigenous old women, kissing indigenous babies and wearing indigenous costume. But this can all be put down to marketing spin (which Keiko’s campaign, funded by huge business interests, can clearly afford, where her rival Humala’s cannot). The fact is that Keiko, despite her cuddly side, is a tough moralist on the side of punishment and crackdowns, and will use those values to effect political crackdown on anyone opposed to big business exploitation of the Peruvian Amazon. British Green Socialist Derek Wall is convinced that the election of Fujimori will mean killings – specifically of indigenous peoples opposing resource exploitation.

It’s true that from where I am (currently Iquitos, in the Peruvian Amazon), Keiko’s left-wing opponent Ollanta Humala hasn’t made very much of a running. He has hardly any street presence, and seems to have no real messages, except perhaps a vague claim of honesty (which in itself is only a reference aimed negatively at the Fujimori family). But he has been de-clawed. This is largely the fault of the prevailing global economic consensus (i.e. neo-liberalism). Any politician that doesn’t fit into that becomes “a threat to growth” and therefore “the wrong choice”. It’s not directly Humala’s fault; his freedom of movement (i.e. to the left) is constrained, and he has been obliged to make statements affirming his commitment to economic business-as-usual. Cement sales started falling in April when Mr. Humala began to gain momentum. Housing starts are off 15% this year due to political uncertainty, says a construction trade group. The economy ministry recently downgraded this year’s growth forecast by one percentage point to 6.5%, after growth of 9% last year, amid uncertainty over a possible victory by Humala. This is what he’s up against.

flyer from Keiko campaign

a flyer from Keiko's campaign, handed out in a working class area. The flyer opens with her free school meals pledge.

But on the other hand, the thought of that woman (Keiko Fujimori) running this country sends shivers up my spine. Keiko’s campaign is a million times more slick than Ollanta Humala’s. You see, she even tricks me into calling her “Keiko”. The political party she’s created for this campaign is just the letter “K”. Everybody loves her. Everybody thinks she’s part of their family. I asked my hostelier in the working class riverport town of Yurimaguas why she was attending a party for Keiko supporters: “Because Keiko is for everyone” she replied, echoing a slogan. I pressed “but is Keiko on the left, on the right?”. She repeated “Keiko es para todos”. And then added as either a guess or an afterthought: “So… right”. With her clear populist bribes such as free school dinners, Keiko’s politics are kind of Jamie Oliver meets Pol Pot. But there’s going to be plenty of people not invited to the party.

Interestingly, the contest between the two “extremes” of Humala and Fujimori is a consequence of Peru’s First Past the Post/Winner Takes All voting system. In the first voting round in April, about half the Peruvian electorate chose one of the three centrists—but they cannibalized each other’s support. That opened the door for the two rivals representing ideological extremes.

Today, the day before the election, the two candidates are neck-and-neck. We can only hope that memory triumphs over forget.

Sources: Wikipedia, Wall Street Journal