- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2016

The shift away from leftist rule in Latin America will take another step forward Sunday as Peruvian voters choose between two center-right candidates to succeed President Ollanta Humala. Although the candidates offer similar pro-market economic agendas, some fear the front-runner, Keiko Fujimori, would move the country back toward the policies of her polarizing father, imprisoned former President Alberto Fujimori.

For the first time in 16 years, Peru’s runoff ballot will offer no leftist candidate. Leftist leaders either have been ousted or have been struggling to hold on to power in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Venezuela in the past year.

Some see Sunday’s vote — and the choices on the ballot — as a sign of progress for democracy and civil society in South America.

“It’s part of the larger picture of trying to consolidate democratic procedures and practice of democratic procedures in a region where they have never been consolidated — with one or two exceptions,” said David Scott Palmer, a Peru analyst who teaches at Boston University. “Whoever wins, this will be the longest single period in Peruvian history of civilian-elected governments.”

Ms. Fujimori comes with a load of political baggage to go with her 5-point lead in the most recent Ipsos poll. Her father, who is serving a 25-year prison term for crimes against humanity and corruption, founded the Popular Force party she now heads. Ms. Fujimori served as her widowed father’s first lady in the 1990s and won a congressional seat in 2006. She narrowly lost her first bid for the presidency in 2011 against Mr. Humala, but her opponents still fear her election could mark a return to the confrontational, authoritarian style of her father.

Ms. Fujimori’s opponent, longtime World Bank official Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, has played up that fear.

Electing another Fujimori, Mr. Kuczynski warned in the campaign’s final debate Sunday, would mean “the return of dictatorship, corruption and lies.”

At 77, the technocratic Mr. Kuczynski is 37 years older than Ms. Fujimori. Although he has held a number of government posts, his primary experience lies in banking and the private sector, including his stint as one of the World Bank’s top officials in Latin America.

Mr. Kuczynski boasts high favorability ratings. He is widely regarded as honest and pragmatic but has a U.S. passport, raising a red flag. His close ties to Washington and his career on Wall Street have caused some concern.

Still, his relatively clean reputation contrasts with that of Ms. Fujimori, who had to sign a pledge in April promising to respect democracy, human rights and press freedom while fighting corruption and compensating the 300,000 men and women who were sterilized under her father’s rule.

Many Peruvians are worried that Ms. Fujimori would return the authoritarian practices her father used or that she would overturn the charges against him.

“Even though she is not her father, she is surrounded by a lot of the same people. It’s unclear, even if she wanted to, if she could adapt a different sort of politics,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank focused on Latin America.

Support for ‘fujimorismo’

Ms. Fujimori’s campaign has been marked by various scandals, including a public spat with her brother, suspected vote-buying and money-laundering accusations that led a senior aide to step down. But with her Popular Force party holding 73 of the 130 seats in Congress, she would be in a strong position to push through her agenda if she prevails Sunday.

Though Mr. Fujimori’s rule embittered many Peruvians, some still believe in “fujimorismo” — the model of a strong executive who defeated the deadly leftist Shining Path movement and pushed through programs to help the country’s long-neglected poor.

Mr. Kuczynski has had a harder time uniting the opposition in country where political parties are weak. As a member of the Lima establishment, Mr. Kuczynski has backing mainly in the capital and southern city Arequipa, but his political party is neither large nor well-supported. Ms. Fujimori has a base with the rural poor who remember her father’s presidency fondly.

“Most of Kuczynski’s voters are most likely voting for him because they don’t want [Ms. Fujimori] to win,” Mr. Shifter said.

This includes lawmaker Veronika Mendoza of the left-leaning Broad Front coalition, who came in third in the first round of voting. In April, Mr. Kuczynski barely made it to the two-candidate runoff, edging Ms. Mendoza with 20.1 percent of the vote to her 18.8 percent. Ms. Mendoza called on her supporters last week to vote for Mr. Kuczynski to “close the book on fujimorismo politics.”

“When [the Fujimoristas] were in government, they did not care about stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from our schools and hospitals,” Ms. Mendoza said. “They did not care about killing those who did not think like them. They did not care about sterilizing thousands of women by force. They did not care about buying the press or members of Congress to do what they pleased.”

Ms. Fujimori has highlighted the importance of small businesses. Elmer Cuba, whom Ms. Fujimori tapped as her chief economic adviser, said Ms. Fujimori plans to raise corporate taxes to finance infrastructure spending and bring economic growth rates back to at least 5 percent per year.

Mr. Kuczynski, by contrast, has proposed cutting the sales tax, reducing regulation and seeking private partners to start up infrastructure projects.

Ms. Fujimori talks tough on crime. That stance has earned her support among Peruvians who are concerned about crime rates, which have increased by 88 percent in the past 10 years. According to an Ipsos poll, 23 percent of voters said they would vote for Ms. Fujimori because she would be the better candidate for reducing crime.

“It looks as though it’s going to be one more election just like last one, and the one before, where voters are voting for the lesser of two evils,” Mr. Palmer said.

“It seems to me that it’s Keiko’s to lose,” he added. “Barring some ugly surprise, which is entirely possible, I think Keiko has the best chance of emerging as the victor in the second round.”

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