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Peru elections: Keiko Fujimori trails Pedro Pablo Kuczynski

Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori, center, sits in a car as security personnel are seen reflected in the windows outside a polling station in Lima, Peru, on June 5. (Janine Costa/Reuters)

Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of jailed 1990s strongman Alberto Fujimori, was narrowly trailing Monday as votes were tallied in a presidential election that pitted her against a center-right former prime minister and investment banker.

If the trend held, the result would represent a major upset in a contest that raised questions about the future of Peruvian democracy and rule of law. Just a week ago, Fujimori, 41, a former congresswoman, led Pedro Pablo Kuczynski by about five percentage points in some polls.

But with 94 percent of the votes counted Monday, Kuczynski had  50.3 percent to his opponent’s 49.7 percent. Polling experts said it would be difficult for Keiko, as she is known in Peru, to turn that lead around.

Running on a populist platform that emphasized significant measures to tackle violent crime, Keiko had attempted to distance herself from the legacy of authoritarianism and graft for which her father received a 25-year prison term.

However, corruption scandals undermined her campaign in the final weeks before Sunday’s runoff election, while Kuczynski benefited from last-minute calls from political leaders from across the spectrum to vote for him to save Peru from a return to a dark period of its past.

The biggest development was the revelation last month that Joaquín Ramírez, the general secretary of Keiko's Popular Force party, is being investigated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in connection with money laundering.

Keiko’s party headquarters are housed in one of the businessman’s properties while she traveled the campaign trail in a sport-utility vehicle provided by him. Her vice presidential candidate, José Chlimper, was then reported to be the source of a doctored audio recording aired on local TV to discredit the DEA informant. Both Ramírez and Chlimper deny the allegations.

The twin scandals revived memories of Alberto Fujimori’s 1990-2000 presidency, during which senior aides allegedly colluded with drug lords and billions of dollars vanished from public coffers. The crimes for which he has been convicted include running death squads and using the media to smear opponents.

“Keiko tried very hard to clean up Fujimorismo’s image but it has just been impossible,” said Steven Levitsky, a political scientist and Latin America expert at Harvard University who writes a column in the Peruvian newspaper La República.

“Fujimorismo has an incredibly corrupt and criminal past, and everyone below Keiko was just a mess. She had almost no one she could put on TV and be confident they would behave in a democratic way. One by one, she ended up hiding each of her spokespeople in the closet. Toward the end of the campaign, Fujimorismo fell silent.”

Despite that, Keiko Fujimori did come tantalizingly close to taking power against an opponent she painted as an out-of-touch elitist in the pocket of big business.

Her promises to use the military to defeat violent crime, reminiscent of the crushing of the Maoist Shining Path rebels under her father, also resonated deeply.

“There is a tremendous mistrust of the entire political class,” said Alfredo Torres, head of Ipsos Peru, a polling company, explaining Fujimorismo’s enduring appeal, especially among poorer and rural voters. “The electorate is very cynical and thinks that if all politicians are corrupt, then I might as well at least vote for one who will get things done.”

If he is confirmed as winner of the presidential race, Kuczynski may have his toughest fight ahead of him. The legislative elections that coincided with the April 10 first round presidential vote gave Fujimori’s Popular Force a narrow absolute majority in Peru’s new 130-member single-chamber congress. Kuczynski’s Peruvians for Change party will have only 18 representatives.

There is broad agreement on economic policy, with both the 77-year-old former World Bank official and the Popular Force committed to continuing the free market and foreign trade policies that have led Peru to record the highest average GDP growth in Latin America since the turn of the millennium.

However, there could be ferocious battles and gridlock on other issues, including the deep reform of inefficient and graft-plagued state institutions, from the police to congress itself, which Kuczynski has promised to carry out.

On Sunday evening, as soon as early results were published, Kuczynski’s supporters began celebrating at his central Lima campaign offices.

Despite his jubilant mood, the candidate was careful to avoid prematurely claiming victory. “We want a democratic country, with dialogue,” he told the crowd. “For that reason, we take these preliminary results with 100 percent optimism but with humility. We abhor dictatorship.”

Keiko, meanwhile, struck a more downbeat note while citing the tight result, within pollsters’ margin of error, as a source of hope.

“The numbers we are seeing on the TV show there is a technical dead heat,” she said. “However, we are going to wait prudently because throughout the night the votes will be arriving from the regions, from abroad, and the rural vote of deep Peru.”

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