In last-minute twist, Peru taps a leader without ties to country's dark past

President-elect Pedro Pablo Kuczynski won a razor-thin victory by capitalizing on concerns about his competitor's family links to rights abuses under former president Alberto Fujimori.

Martin Mejia
Supporters of president-elect Pedro Pablo Kuczynski celebrate in Lima, Peru, Sunday, June 5, 2016. He defeated rival Keiko Fujimori, daughter of controversial former President Alberto Fujimori, in Peru's runoff presidential election. Martin Mejia

Peru’s Pedro Pablo Kuczynski might be the world's happiest politician or, actually, economist.

Mr. Kuczynski, known in Peru simply as PPK, won a razor-thin victory on Sunday in this Andean country, garnering 50.32 percent of the vote to 49.68 percent for his competitor, Keiko Fujimori, with nearly 91 percent of the ballots counted.

It was an unexpected outcome in a race that the former World Bank economist was running in for the second time. Some see his victory as a rejection of Ms. Fujimori – the daughter of an imprisoned former president with a lengthy record of human rights abuses – as much as a victory for PPK. But his pledges to build consensus and a more transparent democracy here also played an important role.

And while the race was rough, it may have been easier than the daunting task that awaits PPK as he makes the full transition from Princeton-educated economist to politician at the helm of Peru’s 30 million people.

“PPK won in large part thanks to the support of the left and the civil society campaigns that threw a floodlight on the dangers of a Keiko Fujimori presidency,” related to her father’s legacy. “But the fact is that Fujimori’s party, Popular Force, has an absolute majority in Congress. This creates an inevitable problem of governability that will be an ongoing challenge for the PPK government,” says Jo-Marie Burt, director of Latin American Studies at George Mason University.

'The underdog'

PPK went into the race as an underdog in a field that originally had 19 candidates. The race came down to Fujimori and him in April, when they came first and second, respectively, and were given the chance to face off on Sunday. Peruvian law requires a candidate to win 50 percent of the vote to win, with top two finishers heading to runoff if this does not happen.

Fujimori won 40 percent of the vote in April, to just 21 percent for PPK. She carried 16 of the country’s 25 regions, while he won one. Most important, her Popular Force party captured 73 seats in the 130-member unicameral Congress, giving it a huge majority. PPK’s party has 18 seats.

The race, in the end, was for Fujimori to lose. And she did just that thanks to unexpected, high-profile endorsements for PPK and a growing scandal in her own party. 

“I did not vote for PPK in April, but decided he was the best option today. I do not think Fujimori is honest,” says Mery Chirinos after voting in Lima’s Chorrillos district.

In the final days of the election, PPK was able to capitalize on support thrown his way, and he painted Fujimori as a threat to democracy. It swayed enough voters to secure victory.

He now has to use all of his skills as a former finance minister, World Bank economist, and investment banker to keep his allies together and work with Fujimori’s congressional majority, which could thwart his policies at every turn. Popular Force’s majority is enough to block legislation, and reject cabinet choices and other top picks. Even more ominous, only 83 votes are required to impeach a president. 

PPK’s vice president-elect, Martín Vizcarra, says he believes the different parties in Congress will put political differences aside to address major problems, including rampant crime.

“We are going to focus on consensus. We believe there are important issues that all parties will be able to agree on as part of a governing agenda for the first 100 days,” he says. 

PPK and Fujimori’s parties, however, differ on key economic proposals, anti-crime measures, and how to deal with social conflicts that have slowed or stopped the development of more than $20 billion in extractive projects.

The president-elect has proposed cutting the sales taxes from 18 percent to 15 percent, something Fujimori’s economic adviser Elmer Cuba called a “dangerous experiment” that would create havoc with government revenue.

And any overture by PPK to the Popular Force risks alienating the left, which helped ensure his victory and will be key to helping him move forward his proposals. One issue in particular is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Peru, the United States, and 10 other countries signed last February. PPK’s party supports it, while the left is strongly opposed.   

Making nice?

Manuel Saavedra, head of the CPI polling firm, says PPK will need to work hard to repair the damage done during the hard-hitting final days of the campaign if he hopes to avoid legislative gridlock.   

PPK ended the race by centering his attacks on Fujimori’s father, who is serving a lengthy prison term for corruption and human rights abuses. PPK told Peruvians they should be afraid that Fujimori would follow in the footsteps of her father, Alberto Fujimori, who ran the country from 1990-2000.

The elder Fujimori sent tanks into the streets in 1992 to close Congress and the judiciary. He governed with an iron fist with little regard for human rights, including masterminding a death squad that assassinated dozens of people and launching a “family planning” strategy that ended up sterilizing an estimated 300,000 indigenous women. 

In 2000, his regime began to unravel under the weight of a corruption scandal, and he fled in November that year to escape justice. He was arrested in neighboring Chile when he tried to return to Peru in 2005, and was extradited and sentenced in 2009. He is serving a 25-year sentence without the chance of parole. 

PPK harped on the idea that the former president – not his daughter – was calling the shots, and predicted that the former leader would be released from prison if his daughter won. 

Efforts to link Fujimori to her father were bolstered by endorsements from numerous politicians – crucially, left-wing Broad Front Congresswoman Verónika Mendoza, who won seven regions in the April first-round vote. PPK carried those regions on Sunday. And a massive anti-Fujimori rally on May 31 focused attention on her family’s dark legacy. She served as first lady for six years in the 1990s after her parents separated in 1994.

PPK also benefitted from scandals that hit close to Fujimori’s campaign: the media reported Congressman and Popular Force chairman Joaquín Ramírez was under investigation by the US Drug Enforcement Administration for alleged asset laundering. He rejected the allegations, but was forced to step down.

Saavedra, from the polling firm, says the endorsements for PPK, the anti-Fujimori march, and the scandals, coming in rapid-fire succession in the final week of the race, changed the dynamic.

“We can’t point to one thing, but to a series of events [that] modified the ways voters perceived the candidates,” he says.

PPK, in his first address to supporters on Sunday night, promised dialogue and consensus. “We are peacemakers and will govern Peru toward a brighter and better horizon.”

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