Political dynasty heiress Fujimori aiming to make history

Rightwing Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori is facing corruption charges and could be jailed if not elected
Rightwing Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori is facing corruption charges and could be jailed if not elected SEBASTIAN CASTANEDA X07403/AFP
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Lima (AFP)

For the third time, Keiko Fujimori is one step away from following her disgraced father into the top political job in Peru and becoming her country's first female president.

The right-wing populist has twice before been beaten in second round run-offs, but this time polls have her neck-and-neck with socialist Pedro Castillo.

Losing out again could be the least of her problems, though, as Fujimori faces charges of taking money from scandal-tainted Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to fund her previous presidential bids in 2011 and 2016.

Prosecutors have said they would seek a prison term of 30 years and 10 months for Fujimori, 46.

She denies any wrongdoing but spent a total of 16 months in pre-trial detention, and was released a second time in May 2020.

If she wins the presidency, the charges would be suspended until after her term under Peruvian law, which exempts sitting presidents from prosecution.

Serving time is nothing new in the Fujimori family.

Her father Alberto Fujimori, of Japanese descent, is currently serving a 25-year sentence for crimes against humanity and corruption.

Now 82, he was found guilty of ordering two massacres by death squads in 1991 and 1992 while president (1990-2000).

He's also currently under investigation for the forced sterilization of hundreds of thousands of poor, mostly indigenous women during his final four years in power.

Keiko Fujimori, though, has always stood by her father and recently told AFP she would pardon him if elected.

"After more than 13 years in prison and having been in prison myself, and having sought my father's freedom through legal means and having not received justice, I will do it," she said.

She previously pledged to do so in 2011 when she narrowly lost the presidential election in a runoff vote to center-leftist Ollanta Humala, a former army officer.

She also sided with her father when her mother Susana Higuchi accused his men of torturing her and divorced him in 1994.

Keiko Fujimori took over first lady duties at the age of just 19 and later broke ties with her brother Kenji in a tussle for their father's political mantle.

But the siblings both appeared at a closing campaign event Thursday, where the younger brother said he was "proud" of his older sister, the two even dancing together.

- Reputational hit -

Despite his deeply tarnished reputation, many Peruvians still remember Alberto Fujimori fondly for how he dealt with the twin misfortunes of hyperinflation and terror.

He stamped out the Shining Path, a communist guerrilla group that carried out attacks and kidnappings, but it was in doing so that he was convicted of the two massacres.

Keiko Fujimori, though, has drawn on his successes in her attempts to woo voters at a time of renewed suffering wrought by the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on the economy.

"The health and economic tragedy reminds me of the years of terrorism and economic crisis," Keiko Fujimori told AFP.

"It's a very dramatic situation and Fujimorism has shown it has the ability to take our country forward in such difficult moments."

Fujimori leads the Popular Force, a party mixing socially conservative populism with neoliberal capitalism. It was the official opposition from 2016 to 2020, when it suffered a crushing defeat in legislative elections.

Previously one of Peru's most popular politicians, both her and her party's reputations took a blow from the corruption scandal.

She is accused of accepting $1.2 million in illicit party funding from Odebrecht, now called Novonor, for her 2011 presidential campaign.

Having lost that race, she was edged out in another runoff in 2016 against center-right economist Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.

- Hardline anti-abortion stance -

Fujimori, whose first name means "Blessed daughter" in Japanese, has spent half her life in politics, initially against her will, she has said.

Peruvians refer to her as just "Keiko" or affectionately, though inaccurately, as "the Chinese" -- "La China."

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The mother of two also takes a hardline stance on abortion and gay marriage in a country which already has some of the toughest anti-abortion laws in the region.

Keiko Fujimori was educated in the United States. Her husband Mark Villanella, who is American, undertook a hunger strike outside his wife's prison to press for her release.