Peru faces ‘unhappy choice’ in presidential election

June 4, 2011

In Sunday’s presidential election in Peru, the daughter of a former president who is in jail for having authorized death squad murders is pitted against a former army officer whose father led a sect that proclaimed the racial superiority of the country’s Indians.

Both are, essentially, running against their pasts as they try to distance themselves from relatives who are in jail or remain in hiding. And the stakes are high: One of them will squeak to victory in a tightly contested election and preside over one of Latin America’s fastest-growing economies.

“It’s an operetta,” said Gustavo Gorriti, a Peruvian investigative reporter.

Keiko Fujimori, 36, is the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, who fled Peru as his government collapsed in a corruption scandal in 2000. He was later convicted of extensive human rights abuses and corruption and given a 25-year prison term.

Her opponent is Ollanta Humala, 48. As a lieutenant colonel, he led an uprising against Fujimori and, in a failed 2006 bid for the presidency, proclaimed admiration for Venezuela’s firebrand president, Hugo Chavez. A brother, Antauro, is in jail for leading his own revolt, which Humala had encouraged. Their father, Isaac, meanwhile, has long tried to reclaim Incan glory. And the business community is spooked because of the candidate’s past pledge to crack down on multinationals.

Polls show the two in a virtual tie in the country of 30 million.

“Both of these candidates have very troubling backgrounds,]and] are not committed to democracy,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy group. “Peruvians are facing a very, very difficult, unhappy choice in this election.”

Indeed, the two candidates have high disapproval ratings and, in a first round of voting in April, finished far from getting a majority of votes. But three centrist candidates canceled themselves out, permitting Humala and Fujimori to advance to Sunday’s election.

Both have tried hard to convince voters that they are moderates, not radicals. Humala wears a business suit, has publicly distanced himself from Chavez and pledged on a Bible that he will respect democratic institutions. His advisers are from Brazil’s ruling Workers Party, which is well respected in the region.

“Humala has an excellent campaign, run by the Brazilians,” said Fernando Rospigliosi, a former Peruvian interior minister. “They present him as a moderate and evenhanded, but I do not believe it.”

Fujimori, too, has tried to cast herself as a centrist who will be a scrupulous caretaker of an economy that has grown an average of 6.3 percent a year since 2002. That has given her establishment support, from the country’s leading newspaper, El Comercio, and Peru’s entrepreneurs.

But some of those who were in her father’s government remain by her side. That has been worrisome to many here because of the widespread abuses and corruption in Alberto Fujimori’s regime — a government that Transparency International, a watchdog group, lists as among the seven most corrupt in modern world history.

“You look around her, it’s all of the same people,” said Coletta Youngers, a Peru expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a policy group. “People involved in her campaign — those not on the run or in jail — are either key advisers or part of her coalition or part of her congressional bloc.”

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