She is not alone. While politicians the world over have long sought to contest election outcomes, with and without basis, some experts say Fujimori’s approach, following Trump’s effort to discredit the outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election over false claims of fraud, could signal the emergence of a trend.
In Peru, Pedro Castillo, Fujimori’s challenger, has claimed victory, but officials say the result could take days or weeks to certify. Citing little evidence, Fujimori has claimed large-scale election fraud, bringing in a small army of lawyers in an attempt to throw out more than 200,000 votes, mainly cast in impoverished, rural areas.
“The election will be flipped, dear friends,” she told thousands of her supporters at a protest in Lima on Saturday.
Peruvian pundits were quick to cite Trump parallels.
Fujimori’s team has claimed that ballot tally sheets were improperly or falsely signed, and questioned tallies where the three-time presidential candidate received no votes. International observers have not raised significant issues with the vote, and have congratulated Peruvian authorities for holding a transparent and peaceful expression of democracy.
One political cartoon — published by Peru’s La República newspaper and widely shared on social media — depicts Fujimori in the face paint and buffalo horns of Jacob Anthony Chansley, the shirtless “QAnon Shaman” who took part in the post-election storming of the U.S. Capitol.
Fujimori is not the only one to have leaned on fraud claims after a recent vote.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s long-standing prime minister until Sunday, cast a deal among opposition lawmakers to remove him from power as “the fraud of the century,” and himself as the victim of plots by Israel’s “deep state.” His supporters blasted right-wing parties that joined the winning coalition as “traitors” and threatened leading politicians.
And in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, who said before the 2018 presidential election that he would only lose if there was fraud, has repeatedly cast doubt on the integrity of Brazilian elections, drawing widespread comparisons to Trump.
In countries with weak democratic institutions, baseless claims have been used to justify a military takeover, as in Myanmar, or to jail opposition figures. Freedom House, a pro-democracy think tank and watchdog, has warned that the world is undergoing “long-term democratic decline.” And analysts have previously cautioned that Trump’s behavior after the 2020 election will continue to embolden autocrats who manipulate electoral processes to hold onto power.
“This epidemic of claims of electoral fraud is just the next chapter in the autocrat’s handbook,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
“Now that game is being played where the elections are usually very clean,” Kenneth Roberts, a Latin American politics professor at Cornell University, said. “When the credibility is called into question the way it has been by Trump and the Republicans in the U.S., it creates a bad example that other leaders and countries can follow, providing a template to change results they don’t like.”
The playbook that appears to be taking shape involves the use of false claims of fraud by right-wing leaders with fiercely loyal bases to discredit the outcome of elections. Such claims resonate especially well in highly polarized societies, political scientists say, and social media has played a key role in amplifying them.
In Peru, the rash of post-election disinformation has spanned the political spectrum, including photoshopped images of people at Fujimori rallies holding classist and racist signs and a fake tweet from Venezuela’s socialist autocratic President Nicolás Maduro celebrating Castillo’s victory.
“I’ve never seen such fake news, that there is a fraud unfolding, and the racist subtext, that the Indigenous are going to march on Lima,” Peruvian journalist Marco Sifuentes said in a popular YouTube show. “They are trying to frighten you, trying to delegitimize the results and force Castillo out no matter what it takes.”
A shared predicament among the leaders of these efforts: personal legal jeopardy. Trump and his organization face multiple criminal probes. Netanyahu is on trial for corruption. Fujimori, meanwhile, had been counting on the presidency to shield her from prosecution on charges of money laundering and obstruction of justice.
She has been imprisoned three times, granted release most recently in April 2020, in an alleged money-laundering scandal connected to her first failed presidential bid. Peruvian prosecutors seek to put her in prison for more than 30 years on separate charges including embezzlement and election fraud.
On Thursday, prosecutors again requested her arrest, alleging she had “systematically” violated her bail conditions by contacting witnesses.
In some ways, however, Fujimori’s accusations of fraud are less a copy of Trump’s than an expansion on similar claims she made in 2016, when she ran and lost against Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. She and her supporters launched a failed effort to impeach Kuczynski. Facing another impeachment effort and swirling corruption allegations, he was forced to resign in 2018.
“In reality, Trump represented the Latin Americanization of U.S. politics,” said Giovanna Peñaflor, a Lima-based political analyst.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, for example, famously denounced the results of the 2006 and 2012 Mexican presidential elections, which he lost, as fraudulent and refused to concede.
But “Trump opened the door to a new scale” of dubious fraud claims, Peñaflor said.
Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist and Latin America expert who co-authored the book “How Democracies Die,” said Trump “has breathed new life into this strategy” because of his standing among the global right, rather than originating it.
Effort to overturn elections can be lethal. The Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, which Democrats and some Republicans charged Trump with inciting, resulted in five deaths. In Israel, the head of the internal security service issued a rare warning of similar violence this month as vitriol aimed at Netanyahu’s opponents spiked after opposition lawmakers announced a deal for a new government.
It’s too early to tell how the situation will play out in Peru, but Levitsky described possible outcomes as troubling for democracy there.
Peru’s national election tribunal ruled Friday that most of Fujimori’s ballot challenges had come after the legal deadline. Still, Levitsky said, there is a chance that the conservative establishment in Lima tries to pressure electoral authorities, or if Castillo succeeds in assuming the presidency, push to remove him. It is also possible that mobilization on both sides could lead to a violent incident that could provoke a coup, he said.
“U.S. institutions were strong enough to withstand Trump,” Peñaflor said. “Peru’s institutions are not as strong..”
The effects of election-related falsehoods can far outlast a specific contest, analysts warn.
“Once you politicize the electoral machinery and [people] no longer have confidence in it being nonpartisan, then it becomes impossible to have elections,” Roberts said.
Observers said recent developments in Peru confirmed that subversions of the democratic process in the United States can have global ripple effects.
“When things go wrong in the U.S., they tend to echo,” Roth said.
Lucien Chauvin in Lima contributed to this report.