Keiko Sofía Fujimori was Peru’s first lady at age 19 – appointed by her father, the then-president. Now 35, she is standing for the top job herself, while her father is in jail charged with corruption. Can she win over the electorate and set him free?
A first lady transformed into her own political force is a familiar Latin American archetype, occasionally set to music. But few would envy the path followed by Keiko Sofía Fujimori. She became Peru’s first lady at 19, after her father banished her mother from the government palace. Later, amid scandal, he quit the country to save his life and told Keiko to fear for her own. He was arrested in 2005 on charges of corruption and human-rights abuses while manoeuvring a return to Peruvian politics after a five-year exile, and the former president deputised his daughter to lead his movement’s coalition. Once he was convicted, last spring, Keiko’s assignment became an indefinite one.
Alberto Fujimori currently sits in a Lima prison fighting a 25-year sentence. But his name is still firmly attached to the political movement he gave birth to. The nameplate outside Keiko’s office in the capital’s legislative palace says Grupo Parlamentario Fujimorista, and busts of the man who gave the party its name are plentiful. The foyer of her Fuerza 2011 campaign headquarters on Lima’s Paseo Colón features more images of Alberto Fujimori than his daughter.
Indeed, in its figurehead’s absence, Fujimorismo – a cult of the indispensable man elevated desperately into an ideology – manages to thrive. The 35-year-old Keiko proudly notes that she won more votes than any other candidate in the 2006 congressional elections, in which her coalition nabbed 13 out of 120 seats, including one now held by her uncle, the former president’s brother. The Fujimoristas are plotting to expand their bright-orange footprint in next year’s elections, with Keiko as their presidential nominee and possibly her younger brother Kenji as a legislative candidate.
But the twin threats of terrorism and hyper-inflation that propelled an unknown mathematician into the country’s highest office two decades earlier have now receded into Peru’s history. Keiko’s job is to prove that she is more than just a stand-in, and that Fujimorismo stands for more than chasing a prisoner’s vindication, and possibly his freedom.
“My father is the leader of the Fujimorismo [but] I am the president of the political party right now. The Peruvian people should know if they vote for me – for Fuerza 2011 – they would vote for me as the president [of the country],” says Fujimori when Monocle meets her in her office. “I will listen to my father’s advice, I will not always agree with him, but I’m the one making those decisions.”
When he entered politics in 1989, Alberto Fujimori was unlikely to win Peru’s presidency, let alone spawn a political dynasty. He was the son of Japanese immigrants whose nickname, El Chino (“the Chinese man”), mistook his ethnic origins but captured his outsider appeal to the country’s working classes.
Even while brandishing a newspaper poll showing Keiko as the frontrunner in April’s elections, her adviser Jorge Morelli – a newspaper columnist who became close to Alberto during his presidency – marvels at the oddity of the situation. “This was a man who came from such humble origins, governed a country brilliantly for 10 years, has been imprisoned for 10 years, and here his own daughter could be elected president.”
Keiko’s earliest campaign memory comes from age 13, gathering signatures for her father’s Change ’90 presidential candidacy. A year later, she was painting posters with his slogan “Work, Technology, Honesty”. For his debates against author Mario Vargas Llosa, Keiko was enlisted to type the candidate’s speeches. She joined him as he campaigned throughout a country where he quickly became seen as a champion of the rural poor against an urban, cosmopolitan elite. “It was an incredible experience to feel the support, the love, the expectation, the energy of the people supporting my father,” she recalls.
At home, things weren’t so idealistic. Keiko’s mother, Susana Higuchi, after a contentious soap-opera divorce, ran for office with an opposition party. Fujimori asked his daughter, then 19 and a student at Boston University, to assume the first lady’s role. “It was a suggestion,” she says today, “like an invitation.”
She smiles because Alberto is not known for his subtlety. Beginning shortly after the election, he dispatched paramilitary squads to hunt down the guerrilla group Shining Path, which had terrorised rural Peru throughout the 1980s. In 1992, Fujimori had engineered what was known as a “self-coup”, dissolving the Congress so he could impose dramatic reforms to fight hyper-inflation. In 1997, he ordered commandos to raid the Japanese ambassador’s residence after a four-month crisis in which Túpac Amaru rebels had held more than 100 hostages.
Keiko was regularly commuting back to Peru from the US on weekends and over holidays, representing the presidency at events and presiding over the charities that are the traditional role of the first lady.
After her graduation, she returned to Lima and quickly antagonised members of her father’s administration by lending her name to a 1998 petition calling for a referendum against his quest for a third term. “I signed it, because I was in favour of the referendum,” she says. “My father was tolerant: he was not happy, of course, but he always respected my thoughts.”
The next year, Keiko says she warned him about Vladimiro Montesinos, the presidential adviser who also headed the country’s intelligence service. “Then the Cabinet was more active working against me and telling my father that my presence was causing instability,” she says. Once Montesinos was caught extending a bribe on Fujimori’s behalf, Keiko gave a TV interview saying her father should have known better than to trust him.
In November 2000, as the bribery scandal thrummed, Fujimori phoned his daughter from Tokyo and told her he would settle there. He advised Keiko to leave Peru, too. Three days later, the president faxed his resignation to Lima. Keiko felt a surprising moment of relief. “I decided to stay against my father’s suggestion,” she says. “I thought for me it was an opportunity to finally start my path and career in the private sector.”
Keiko entered business school in New York, and met an American man who would become her husband. After five years in self-imposed exile in Japan, her father fled to Santiago, where he planned to stage a triumphant return to Peruvian politics before 2006’s presidential elections. He was arrested not long after touching Chilean soil, on charges related to massacres of Shining Path rebels. Alberto finally reached Peru in shackles.
Keiko spends most weekends travelling the country to build support for her party, and when possible brings her two daughters along to show them “the reality” of life outside Lima. The oldest, Kyara, had her first taste of guinea pig at age one, Keiko recalls proudly. “I want my children to grow up learning the diversity of my country and to love my country.”
It’s a lot different from the Peru that first elected her father. The Shining Path has been reduced to a few hundred insurgents. The country is now one of South America’s fastest-growing economies. “A lot of people look back with admiration on Fujimori’s economic policies, the idea that he really put the country on the right track,” says Anthony Quainton, US ambassador when Fujimori came to office.
Keiko says her father is “loved by half of the people, and hated by half of the people,” although the polls are a little less generous. They show she carries more than one-quarter of the vote, strongest in the rural regions, against a field of three or four likely candidates. Those numbers present a clear path into the election’s second round, but suggest Keiko must broaden her appeal significantly beyond her father’s to win an outright majority.
As a result, she is eager to point out the places where she differs from her father – while not unsettling those still dreaming of a restoration. Keiko says her youth gives her a belief in technology, and a concern with climate change, that were never on the former president’s agenda.
Keiko acknowledges one criticism of her father’s rule: that after being elected as a populist of the left he governed as a strongman of the right. “I learned from him never to promise something you cannot fulfil,” she says. “Don’t play with the expectations of the people.”
One of the consequences of Alberto Fujimori’s successes is that the mainstream of Peruvian politics has reached a consensus about almost everything except the man himself. Indeed, Alberto’s fate seems to be one of the few issues where election results could cause a change in national policy. “The only possibility of freeing Fujimori is if Keiko wins the election and grants an amnesty,” says José Ugaz, who served as special state attorney investigating Fujimori’s régime. “If there’s an amnesty, there would be turmoil here.”
Keiko visits her father once a week, and always brings her daughters. Kyara has started to say she gets bored when she goes to see her grandfather. “I haven’t explained to her yet why we always go to the same place,” Keiko says. “I’m going to wait a little bit longer.”
Take to the streets
Keiko Fujimori represents a Lima district, but much of the support for her presidential candidacy is far outside the capital. The candidate who appears to run strongest in the cities is outgoing Lima mayor Luis Castañeda. This year he inaugurated a long-awaited, long-delayed bus system designed to replace the chaotic network of minivans that buzz around the city.
The natural-gas-fuelled Metropolitano buses rely on dedicated bus lanes and enclosed stations modelled on Bogotá’s TransMilenio system, and allow riders to pay with a swipe card. Early figures show Lima’s system to be popular, although many locals complain that it doesn’t seem to have taken many cars off the streets.
Fujimori’s team hope that the capital’s ongoing traffic agonies will dampen enthusiasm for Castañeda’s candidacy in his hometown.