WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
5 Apr 2016 | Commentary | News

Peru Elections 2016: Back to the Future?

By Jo-Marie Burt, WOLA Senior Fellow

Elections in Peru are just five days away. In what is a remarkable—and wholly lamentable—turn of events, attention was dramatically shifted from the candidates and their proposals for leading the country for the next five years to the controversial decision by electoral authorities to exclude two candidates, raising serious questions about the process itself. This has conjured up the ghosts of one of the most disputed elections in recent Latin American history, the 2000 “re-re-election” of former strongman Alberto Fujimori, in which the electoral authorities engaged in widespread fraud to guarantee a Fujimori victory over his opponent, Alejandro Toledo. Today, which marks the anniversary of the April 5 “self-coup” that consolidated the authoritarian Fujimori experiment, protesters across the country are marching against leading presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori, who they fear will bring back the authoritarian and corrupt practices of her father (who since 2009 has been serving out a 25-year sentence for human rights violations and numerous other sentences for corruption and abuse of authority).

The electoral debacle was set in motion less than a month before the elections were set to take place, when the electoral authorities decided to disqualify two candidates from the race. One of the disqualified candidates was newcomer Julio Guzmán, who according to polls had risen quickly to command around 20 percent of the vote, and was disqualified based on his party’s failure to follow certain procedural norms during the process of registering his candidacy. The other candidate, César Acuña, was disqualified because he had given away presents worth more than the newly minted electoral laws allowed.

Some observers, including crusading reporter Gustavo Gorriti, believe that the disqualification of Guzmán in particular was politically motivated. According to Gorriti, the decision was orchestrated by two-time former president Alan García, who was trailing in the polls and who would, presumably, benefit from Guzmán’s removal. That did not happen, to García’s dismay; he is now polling at under five percent in most national polls. What did happen is that the decision to disqualify these two candidates led to a wave of petitions to disqualify just about all the other candidates. There was ample evidence that several of the leading parties were guilty of similar faults as Guzmán and Acuña, most importantly that of front-runner Keiko Fujimori; video and testimonial evidence show her clearly involved in events where cash “prizes” are being handed out, but the electoral authorities balked at further exclusions.

Whether politically motivated or merely the result of incompetence, as others believe, the decisions by the electoral authorities to disqualify some candidates and not others engaged in similar behavior have created an appearance of political favoritism and uneven application of electoral rules, discrediting the electoral process itself. Political commentators—including the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro—have referred to these elections as only “semi-democratic” as a direct result of this situation. Others speak openly of fraud.

This is a sad state of affairs, especially given Peru’s efforts to overcome election-tampering in its recent past. Under the authoritarian government of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), democratic institutions—including electoral authorities—were thoroughly corrupted by Fujimori and his henchmen to ensure their continuation in power. In 1999 and 2000, massive pro-democracy protests emerged to challenge Fujimori’s unprecedented attempt to run for a third term in office, which many viewed as unconstitutional. When the vast web of corruption that sustained the Fujimori regime was revealed in September 2000, and Fujimori fled the country two months later and resigned by fax from his parent’s native Japan, an interim government led by Valentín Paniagua was put in place. One of Paniagua’s first and most fundamental tasks was to organize new elections the following year, and to make sure that they were free and fair. He did, and they were. Alejandro Toledo, denied victory in 2000 by corrupt electoral authorities under the thumb of Fujimori and his intelligence advisor Vladimiro Montesinos, was elected president. Since then, free and fair elections were held in 2006 and 2011—marking only the second first time in Peruvian history that two democratically-elected presidents consecutively handed the presidential sash over to their successors.

Disqualified candidate Julio Guzmán could have taken to the streets to protest his exclusion. He ignited the youth vote, who were seeking a new face, someone completely unconnected to existing political parties and who had a professional profile that imbued him with a sense of competent leadership. Instead, Guzmán is seeking precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), hoping that a favorable pronouncement will require the Peruvian authorities to resume his candidacy. If the IACHR is to act, it will need to do so quickly, with voting set to go forward in Peru on April 10. As a practical matter, Guzman’s reinstatement would require a postponement of the elections for a several weeks, as the balloting materials would need to be revised and reprinted. The IACHR has come under tremendous pressure in recent years by numerous member states, and it may not feel inclined to stick its neck out, particularly when other political groups in Peru—which have benefitted from Guzmán’s exclusion—have preferred to seize on the immediate political advantages in a race that is still up for grabs rather than draw attention to the prospect that the uneven application of the electoral rules will threaten to taint the credibility of the eventual winner.

The two immediate beneficiaries of Guzman’s sidelining are Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (known by his initials PPK, which are also the acronym for his party, Peruvians for Change) and Verónica Mendoza of the left-wing Broad Front (Frente Amplio). Different polls show one or the other as the second-highest polling candidate after Keiko Fujimori. While Fujimori enjoys a significant lead over both of them—30 to 35 percent depending on the polling company, compared to 15 to 20 percent for each of the other two candidates—unless she wins 50 percent plus one vote on the April 10 election, she will be forced into a run-off vote on June 5. In the 2011 elections, she was also the front-runner in the first round, but lost in the run-off vote to Ollanta Humala. The reason is fairly straightforward: while fujimorismo has a hard-core following of 25-30 percent of the voting public, giving Keiko Fujimori a solid first-round lead, a majority of the population also has a negative opinion of her.

And this is why today is so important. Individuals and organizations across the country plan to march in a peaceful demonstration of their steadfast opposition to a Keiko Fujimori presidency on what is the anniversary of the “self-coup” orchestrated by her father, in which Congress was shut down, the Judicial branch taken over, and constitutional guarantees suspended with the backing of the armed forces. In the view of the protest organizers, Keiko Fujimori represents a certain return to the authoritarian and corrupt tactics tha
t characterized her father’s decade in power. While children do not inherit the sins of their father, the anti-Keiko Fujimori sectors say that Keiko was not simply Fujimori’s daughter: she was for many years his First Lady; she directly benefited from the corruption of his regime (she once confessed to a congressional committee that Montesinos handed her wads of cash on her visits home to pay for her college education in the United States, for example); and she actively campaigned for her father in 2000. Despite her very recent acknowledgment that “errors” (but not “crimes”) were committed during her father’s government, she continues to view his regime as the “best” Peru has ever had.

There is also the delicate matter of whether Keiko Fujimori would pardon her father, who sits in a special prison on a 25-year sentence for crimes against humanity and other corruption charges. In the past she said she would free him but then backtracked, saying she was confident that he would be freed using legal means. His lawyers have filed numerous petitions and writs of habeas corpus seeking his release but to date all have been unsuccessful. Keiko Fujimori and her brother Kenji, currently a congressman, appealed to Ollanta Humala a few years back to grant their father a humanitarian pardon; after studying Fujimori’s medical record, Humala determined that he did not suffer a grave medical condition and denied the petition. All this to say: it is highly likely that Keiko Fujimori would find a way to release her father should she be elected president.

Whether she will ultimately win the elections remains uncertain. Despite the fact that she enjoys 30 percent of the vote, Keiko Fujimori will inevitably have to face the runner up in a second-round contest. Because of the strong anti-Fujimori vote, whoever makes it into that spot will have a good chance of becoming Peru's next president, assuming they are able to bring together enough support from other sectors. Verónica Mendoza is rising in the polls—some even show her superseding PPK—but so too is a vicious campaign against her, accusing her of being a terrorist, a communist and a clone of Nadine Heredia (the current First Lady). If Mendoza does make it to the second round, it would be the first time in Latin American history that two women, and young women at that—Verónica is 35, Keiko is 40—face off in a second-round race to the presidential palace.

Regardless, the tainted nature of these elections was the result of uneven application of the law by electoral authorities. The result may be a process that lacks legitimacy and that may undermine the authority of whoever is ultimately elected president.