Sins of the Father: Keiko Fujimori’s Presidential Candidacy in Peru

Dynastic politics are still strong across the globe. Hillary Clinton seems poised to follow in her husband’s footsteps and become President of the United States. Another Trudeau was elected Prime Minister of Canada last October. Chinese President Xi Jinping is a so-called “princeling.” And, as has been well documented on this blog, dynasties rule the political scene in the Philippines.

The front runner in Peru’s presidential election also has a familiar last name: Fujimori. Congresswoman Keiko Fujimori is the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, who held office from 1990 to 2000. Ex-President Fujimori’s regime did some good in Peru; for example, his liberal economic reforms helped to launch a period of economic growth. But his regime was also brutal and plagued by corruption. President Fujimori is in prison today, serving a 25 year sentence for human rights violations. He’s also been convicted of a number of corruption-related offenses, including using his spy chief to bribe journalists, business people, judges, and opposition politicians.

Despite this legacy of corruption, and the fact that Peruvians view corruption as one of the most serious problems facing the country, Congresswoman Fujimori sits atop the polls of the 2016 election. Is this a problem? How much should Peruvian voters consider Alberto Fujimori’s corruption and human rights abuses when they vote next month? And to what extent should the Fujimori family legacy affect their assessment of Congresswoman Fujimori’s approach to corruption?

These are complicated questions. On the one hand, it seems unfair to hold Keiko Fujimori accountable for her father’s misdeeds. She’s denied any involvement in his corruption (though her higher education in the United States was allegedly paid for by funds he embezzled). She was also quite young during his presidency — only 15 when he assumed office, 19 when she became First Lady after her parents’ split, and 25 when her father fled to Japan to escape corruption allegations. Given Congresswoman Fujimori’s lack of obvious culpability in her father’s bad acts and her young age at the time, it seems inappropriate to hold her responsible for those acts.

On the other hand, Keiko Fujimori has, in part, built her career on her father’s. His surname helped catapult her to victory in the 2006 congressional elections, and in that and all of her subsequent elections—including a failed presidential bid in 2011—she’s run on a so-called “Fujimorist” agenda centered on free market and tough-on-crime policies. Given how eagerly Congresswoman Fujimori has embraced her role as her father’s political heir, it likewise seems inappropriate to let her off the hook entirely for the negative aspects of her father’s legacy.

In assessing whether Congresswoman Fujimori will act effectively against corruption if elected president (something that she, like every other candidate, has promised to do), we should look primarily to what she herself has done (or failed to do) already in the fight against corruption, but we should also consider the extent to which she has distanced herself from her father’s corrupt past. On these grounds, Congresswoman Fujimori’s record demonstrates major cause for concern:

  • First, Congresswoman Fujimori’s personal record on corruption is poor. This is, of course, the most important consideration; nothing reflects more strongly on a politician’s future behavior than his or her past actions. Last year Congresswoman Fujimori’s party was accused of conspiring with fellow opposition party APRA to avoid corruption investigations. The two parties united to block embezzlement investigations into both Keiko Fujimori herself and former APRA minister Pedro Sanchez, who served in former president Alan Garcia’s administration. Even assuming Congresswoman Fujimori knew she was personally innocent, her willingness block investigations into others in order to protect herself is unsettling. Further, in the instances where Congresswoman Fujimori has chosen to take more activist anticorruption stances, those stances have taken on a distinctly political flavor. For example, in light of corruption allegations against the sitting First Lady, Congresswoman Fujimori called for the First Lady to be removed and tried in court. While this may well be the right decision, Congresswoman Fujimori’s selective attention suggests she may only be inclined to promote anticorruption efforts when they advantage her politically and may be inclined to subvert those efforts when they disadvantage her.
  • Second, Congresswoman Fujimori’s approach to her father’s incarceration — in particular her seeming willingness to pardon him — is of grave concern. This point straddles the line between the Congresswoman’s own record and her treatment of her father’s legacy; it reflects on both her record in overlooking corrupt acts by those close to her and her symbolic stance as her father’s heir apparent. In 2012, Congresswoman Fujimori (then a private citizen) tried to secure a humanitarian pardon for her father. That by itself is not much of a concern: it’s what many children would do for their parents in that situation. Much more troubling is Congresswoman Fujimori’s politicized reaction to the failure of that effort; she accused President Humala of making an intentionally political decision in order to “debilitate Fujimorism.” Further, before Keiko Fujimori had formally announced her 2011 presidential campaign, she vowed to pardon her father if she were elected, saying her “hand [would] not tremble” to do so, and she visited him in prison during that campaign for advice. In the current election cycle she has said she would not pardon her father— a shrewd political move — but given the apparent support among Fujimorists (and in particular the right-wing “Albertistas”) for pardoning the ex-president, it seems likely she would either pardon him outright or exert pressure on prosecutors and the courts to have his convictions overturned.
  • Third, Congresswoman Fujimori has failed to distance herself adequately from the corrupt policies of her father’s presidency. Every politician whose support is built on the policies of his or her predecessor must reckon with that predecessor’s legacy. But the fact that Congresswoman Fujimori has built her political career (in part) on the currency of her name means the public can and should expect more from her than they would of an average candidate. Admittedly, Congresswoman Fujimori has taken actions to distance herself from her father this election cycle (see here and here). She says that his administration’s corruption was “very painful for the country,” and that she would fight “small and big corruption” if elected. She has also taken the step of expelling certain old-guard Fujimorist members from her party — a move that, on the surface, seems like a good sign. However, her actions also betray a desire to pass the blame and a penchant for politically convenient behavior. In that speech addressing corruption in her father’s administration, Congresswoman Fujimori highlighted the fact that other presidential administrations have faced corruption allegations — hardly an excuse for her father’s behavior. She also continues to call her father’s corrupt acts “errors” rather than crimes, and she called his biggest mistake keeping on his spy master, Vladimiro Montesinos — not her father’s actual misdeeds. Further, there is little evidence that her decision to exclude old-line Fujimorists was done for corruption-related reasons, rather than election-related ones.

Taken together, these factors bode poorly for the ethics of a Keiko Fujimori presidency. The problem is not her parentage, but rather her apparent refusal to fully acknowledge the extent of wrongdoing in her father’s administration, and her disturbing willingness to squelch anticorruption investigations for political reasons. That said, I should note that two other presidential candidates — former Presidents Alan Garcia and Alejandro Toledo — have worse corruption track records than Congresswoman Fujimori (see here and here). And corruption is obviously not the only thing voters should concern themselves with when they enter the voting booth. Improving the economy, fighting drug trafficking, and promoting general public safety are all admirable goals. However, voters should consider the legacy of Alberto Fujimori’s presidency when they cast their ballot next month. While it would be wrong to hold Congresswoman Fujimori responsible for the sins of her father, her actions have suggested she may well repeat his mistakes.

8 thoughts on “Sins of the Father: Keiko Fujimori’s Presidential Candidacy in Peru

  1. Pingback: Does Compulsory Voting Increase Or Decrease Corruption? | Anti Corruption Digest

  2. There is plenty of evidence that suggests that corruption is rarely a significant determinant at the ballot box, partly because it is not seen as a way of differentiating between candidates (because “they” are all at it). In fact there is even some evidence to suggest that voters may actually reward corrupt politicians in elections, see for example Congresswoman Fujimori’s prospects are therefore more likely to hinge on whether there is appetite for a new round of Fujimorist free market fundamentlism. Corruption, I fear, will ultimately play little part in the final outcome.

    • Thank you so much for the comment, Andy. I think you are completely right that the Peruvian election will come down to a lot more than corruption, and the research you mention is fascinating. I’d hope, of course, that it will matter. I believe there was at least some suggestion that the Congresswoman’s connection to her father proved part of her undoing in 2011. That said, given the repeated corruption scandals of every president since Alberto Fujimori, I couldn’t blame any Peruvian for thinking that voting based on corruption isn’t worth it.

  3. Thanks for another insightful post. Your second point raises an interesting question about Congresswoman Fujimori’s behavior while “a private citizen.” Seeing that political dynasties are remarkably common, even where the elder member has a tarnished record, could there be cases where pre-candidacy statements (made out of love or filial piety) and later statements (made as a statesperson or candidate) can be distinguished? I supposed on some level that simply depends on how much one is willing to trust politicians. On another level, though, assuming that someone had advocated for a particular corruption-perpetuating result during their pre-public life, there could be situations where a candidate can convincingly distance him or herself from previous stands. (It doesn’t sound like that has happened here, even given the turnaround on the pardon sought in the current election.) It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a politician has changed tunes on a particular issue. Is there something specific about corruption-related responses, and particularly those relating to family members, that would make them more dubious than other types of campaign promises?

    • I think you raise two really excellent points here Kate: (1) whether we can distinguish between stands (in favor of family) as a private citizen and stands on those same issues in office, given the prevalence of political dynasties; and (2) is there something special about changes in corruption-related stands that should make us especially wary?

      On one, I think there is a way to distinguish the two. In particular, I think when people are in office they understand they have divided loyalties, and cannot use their position to advance their family’s interests. A classic example would be a prosecutor who’s sibling is under investigation. Before she was in office, I think it’s perfectly appropriate to try to convince investigators her sibling is innocent. While in office, however, it’s inappropriate for her to leverage her position to do so. Of course this is an oversimplification, and the line gets murkier if the prosecutor leaves the office and attempts to leverage her connections to change the investigations outcome.

      At bottom, I am uncomfortable blaming Kieko Fujimori for her private actions, in part because they, in some ways. involve her being a “good daughter.” Once she enters public service however, or represents how she will act in office, her duties are to the Peruvian people. They have a right to demand full loyalty. I do think you are correct that in some ways the extent you are willing to agree with me comes down to trust, or at least your assessment of how much you think Congresswoman Fujimori’s actions as a private citizen reflect on her moral character.

      On the second point, I’m not entirely sure. I do think corruption is one of those issues with an obvious answer (less, not more), so I’m not terribly forgiving when it comes to “flip-flopping.” It’s also a salient issue politically and is ripe for opportunistic posturing. Changing your mind on particular policy proposals may be appropriate, but if only each “flop” or “U-turn” is evinces the same desire to combat corruption.

      • The “private citizen” idea is complicated in this case, though. In some sense, Keiko Fujimori stopped being a private citizen when she became the first lady of Peru. That fact, I think, means that increased scrutiny will and should apply to her relative to that which we would apply to other family members turned candidates.

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