More than 15 years after his resignation from the presidency in the wake of an immense corruption scandal, Alberto Fujimori remains Peru’s most divisive figure. Some regard the former president–now serving a lengthy prison sentence in Lima for two massacres carried out by death squads under his rule during the 1990s—as a success because of his economic record and because of his crackdown on the Shining Path insurgency. Many others disdain him for the corruption and human rights abuses committed during his rule. 

It is no surprise that a bid for the presidency by Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko Fujimori, has brought those divisions to the center of Peru’s politics. Yet this has been hardly the only divisive issue this electoral season. Indeed, as in previous elections, Peruvians remain polarized over the country’s free-market economic model, which has been in place since the 1990s. On the one hand, Peru has become one of Latin America’s top economic performers, with annual growth rates averaging around six percent for over a decade, an expanding middle class, declining poverty rates, and major transformations in the country’s big cities. On the other hand, many Peruvians, particularly in the country’s rural interior, are frustrated by what they perceive as an unequal distribution of wealth.

Fujimori seems to have acknowledged that her father’s record could do her more harm than good.

That discontent has allowed leftist candidates to perform better than many expected in Peru’s recent presidential elections—in 2006, 2011, and finally in the first-round presidential vote held this year on April 10. With nearly 40 percent of the ballots, Fujimori came in a handy first place, but failed to secure the majority she needed to avoid a runoff election with the second-place candidate in June. Perhaps more striking is the fact that Verónika Mendoza, a psychologist and fluent Quechua speaker representing a coalition of leftist parties, managed to threaten the business-friendly former finance minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s second-place finish. At 19 percent, Mendoza’s support was only two percentage points behind Kuczynski’s, whom most observers had assumed would be the clear alternative to Fujimori. Indeed, if so many voters supporting long-shot candidates had not migrated to Kuczynski at the last minute, Mendoza’s performance would have been even stronger.  

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski waves to supporters at his headquarters in Lima after the election, April 2016. Kuczynski has struggled to appeal to rural voters.
Pedro Pablo Kuczynski waves to supporters at his headquarters in Lima after the election, April 2016. 
Guadalupe Pardo / REUTERS
 

Fujimori, Kuczynski, and Mendoza all benefitted from the chaos that marked the run-up to the first round of elections. In early March, Peru’s electoral tribunal disqualified Julio Guzmán, a former vice minister and economist at the Inter-American Development Bank, for procedural errors while registering his candidacy. It also banned César Acuña, a former mayor and regional governor, after his campaign handed out cash to potential voters during a rally. With Acuña and Guzmán booted, some 25 percent of Peru’s electorate lost their preferred candidate. The turmoil and uncertainty caused by the electoral tribunal’s decision just a month before the election revealed an inadequate regulatory framework originally designed to strengthen Peru’s weak party system. More broadly, it suggested that the country’s democratic institutions have not grown at the same pace as its economy.

Fujimori managed to secure such a strong showing in the first round due to her loyal base of supporters, largely among Peru’s poor. She has managed to capitalize on her father’s popularity: much of her backing comes from voters who believe that another Fujimori presidency would guarantee a strong economy and an improved security situation. That explains, for instance, the hard line she has taken against crime and the populist promises she has made, among them to restore the death penalty for certain offenses. Fujimori’s strong presence among the poor—a sector that Kuczynski struggles to reach—could be a crucial factor in delivering her the presidency in June’s runoff.

Fujimori’s father’s legacy, however, has left a durable mark on her reputation. Her disapproval ratings have remained high since 2011, when she first campaigned for the presidency before losing to the current president, Ollanta Humala, and now stand at over 40 percent. Since the disqualification of Acuña and Guzmán, rallies against Fujimori’s candidacy have become more frequent and well attended.

A farmer pushes a handcart in Peru's northern Cajamarca region, June 2013. The fruits of the country's economic boom have not been evenly distributed.
A farmer pushes a handcart in Peru's northern Cajamarca region, June 2013.
Enrique Castro-Mendivil / REUTERS

Fujimori seems to have acknowledged that her father’s record could do her more harm than good—a change from her 2011 campaign, when she appeared to defend his legacy. She has sidelined some controversial figures linked to her father’s government, and has signed a pledge to respect democracy and human rights and to guard against corruption and preferential treatment for her family. Nevertheless, many Peruvians are skeptical that, if elected, she will refrain from using her presidential powers to pardon her father.

Popular divisions over economic policy became increasingly evident in the final days of the campaign, as Mendoza started making inroads after Guzmán and Acuña were disqualified. Mendoza campaigned for a new constitution to replace Peru’s Fujimori-era document, for the revision of free-trade agreements, stronger labor unions, and stricter environmental regulation for extractive industries—her platform, in short, echoed the one proposed by Humala during his unsuccessful 2006 presidential campaign. (Mendoza became a congresswoman for Humala’s party in 2011, but defected a year later in opposition to his shift toward the right.) Her proposals appealed to many Peruvians who feel that they have been left behind by the economic boom—especially in some rural areas, where poverty rates are high and protests against mining projects over environmental concerns are common. But her campaign also prompted a backlash from politicians advocating free-market policies, members of Peru’s business community, and voters averse to a change—and that encouraged some voters supporting long-shot candidates to migrate to Kuczynski to prevent her from making it to the second round. Although Mendoza did not win enough votes to move into the runoff, her performance among the rural poor highlighted geographic and economic divisions that have played an important role in elections in the past.

Peru’s near-term prospects are very much in line with the rest of Latin America’s.

In the coming weeks, competition between Fujimori and Kuczynski won’t hinge only on the Fujimori legacy; it will also be driven by the extent to which the two candidates are willing to compromise on economic policy. Especially in poorer regions where Kuczynski lacks traction, Fujimori will probably try to capture voters who supported Mendoza in the first round by, for example, promising to spend more on social programs or siding with communities in conflict with mining companies over natural resources. For his part, Kuczynski will highlight his democratic credentials to appeal to those unwilling to vote for Fujimori, but his success will be limited by the fact that, in the 2011 runoff, he publicly endorsed Fujimori’s candidacy against Humala. The former finance minister has ruled out modifying his campaign platform, but he will need to portray himself as closer to the center to secure the support of Peruvians unwilling to vote for Fujimori but close enough to the left to otherwise cast a blank vote instead of backing him. So even as Kuczynski promises to deliver improved economic growth, he will also need to highlight his commitment to making growth more inclusive and appear open to compromise with the left.

Regardless of who takes office, the next president of Peru will face a challenging economic environment owing to the commodities downturn, as well as domestic constraints, such as the enduring risk of popular protests, mainly against the mining industry. Kuczynski would have a particularly hard time bringing his agenda to fruition, since Fujimori’s party, Fuerza Popular, will have a majority in Peru’s congress. Fujimori would have an easier time for precisely that reason—but the combination of popular demands for ramped-up social spending and slowing economic growth would constrain her, too, likely putting downward pressure on her approval ratings. In this sense, Peru’s near-term prospects are very much in line with the rest of Latin America’s.   

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