Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori of the Popular Force party at campaign rally on the outskirts of Lima on March 31. (Janine Costa/Reuters)

As Peru’s former president Alberto Fujimori serves a 25-year jail term for kidnapping, directing death squads and other crimes, his family is poised for an improbable political comeback.

His 40-year-old daughter, Keiko, is the clear front-runner going into Sunday’s first-round presidential vote. Treading a delicate line between distancing herself from her father’s offenses and taking credit for his accomplishments — including taming hyperinflation and crushing the Shining Path rebels — she has around 35 percent support and a double-digit lead over her nearest challengers.

Weary of entrenched corruption and distrusting the political class, Peru’s electorate is notoriously volatile. But it is almost certain that Keiko Fujimori will miss the 50 percent needed to win outright and instead will head as favorite into the June 5 runoff against the second-place candidate.

The family’s likely return to power has many Peruvians concerned for their fragile democracy. Critics fear the country could return to the sort of abuses that occurred during Alberto Fujimori’s 1990-2000 presidency, when the government shuttered Peru’s congress and the courts, harassed critics and ordered the extrajudicial killings of terrorist suspects — some of whom had nothing to do with the insurgents. The anti-graft group Transparency International has calculated that $600 million vanished from public coffers on Fujimori’s watch.

Demonstrators shout slogans against Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori during a march in Lima. (Esteban Felix/AP)

Keiko, who is widely referred to in Peru by her just first name, has moved to head off those concerns and present her Popular Force party as a modern democratic center-right movement. “I know how to view the history of my country. I know which chapters should be repeated and which not,” the former congresswoman said during a TV debate Sunday evening. “I promise to respect absolutely the democratic order and human rights.”

But many are unconvinced. “The revanchist current within ‘Fujimorismo’ could come to the fore, especially if they get a majority in congress,” said Eduardo Dargent, a politics professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. “Peruvians and the international community will need to respond at the first sign of authoritarianism.”

Others, however, especially poor Peruvians, revere Alberto Fujimori for restoring order to a country racked by annual inflation of more than 12,000 percent and the bloodlust of the Marxist Shining Path, which launched an internal conflict that claimed 69,000 lives.

“Fujimori saved Peru,” said Jorge Pérez, 42, a Lima taxi driver. “That’s why we should give Keiko a chance. He was the only president who ever did anything for this country.”

Meanwhile, rampant corruption, rooted in part in Fujimori’s weakening of institutional checks and balances, is contributing to his daughter’s popularity.

“Since Fujimori stepped down, it has been one scandal after another,” said Walter Albán, head of Transparency International’s Peruvian branch. “People are disappointed with the return to democracy and are being pragmatic. They think ,‘If all politicians are corrupt, then I should at least vote for one that gets things done.’ ”

Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori. (Janine Costa/Reuters)

Since narrowly losing out on the presidency in 2011 to leftist former army officer Ollanta Humala, Keiko has rebuilt Popular Force, crisscrossing the country to give stump speeches to small audiences while holding the media at bay. She has given no interviews to foreign journalists during this campaign.

Taking a leaf out of her father’s book, she promises to crack down on crime, using the army to guard official buildings, thus freeing thousands of police officers for street patrols, and to build high-security prisons in the Andes.

Yet she is also widely expected to free her disgraced 77-year-old father, whose 2009 trial Popular Force regards as illegitimate.

“We believe that all those who were justly convicted should serve out their sentences,” said Cecilia Chacón, a prominent Popular Force congresswoman, making it clear that the former president falls into a different category. Chacón insisted he will be released through court appeals, obviating a presidential pardon.

Keiko’s other policy proposals include a “shock” of infrastructure spending to kick-start Peru’s slowing economy, which is heavily dependent on the export of minerals whose prices are falling.

In a bid to attract more voters, she has also backed same-sex civil unions and access to legal abortion when the mother’s life is at risk, both anathema to the conservative Catholics and evangelicals who make up much of the nucleus of her support.

But those pledges have been overshadowed by questions about her murky campaign finances, frequent corruption scandals involving prominent Fujimoristas, and rumblings over the electoral authorities’ alleged uneven treatment of the candidates.

Last month, Peru’s National Electoral Tribunal pulled two of Keiko’s rivals from the presidential race, ruling that centrist economist Julio Guzmán had committed minor violations of his party’s internal democracy processes and populist businessman César Acuña had given money to voters. Guzmán’s exclusion came just after the outsider had surged into second place.

The panel then cleared Keiko of the same violation committed by Acuña, despite a video showing her presiding over the distribution of envelopes of prize money at a break-dancing competition. In the eyes of many, that has called the election’s legitimacy into question, leading to street protests.

Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, last week called on the tribunal, via Twitter, to “reestablish the rights of political participation for all and avoid semi-democratic elections.”

With a quarter of the electorate considered undecided, pollsters warn that Keiko could be vulnerable in the second round. “The question will be whether anti-Fujimoristas, from left and right, coalesce around her rival,” said Alfredo Torres, head of the Ipsos polling company in Peru.

That rival is likely to be Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, 77, a free-market champion and former prime minister, or Verónika Mendoza, a 35-year-old leftist congresswoman who has focused on the country’s inequality.

Depending on Sunday’s results, new battle lines will be drawn around the fiercely contested legacy of Peru’s most influential president of the last half-century.

Read more

How a Greenpeace stunt in Peru drives home the global climate divide

In Latin America, right in retreat as left wins more elections