Keiko: The Doorstop Candidate

Keiko Fujimori is a paradox of a wedge politician: a conservative loathed by the rich and adored by the poor, she bring with her all the baggage of her authoritarian father. But she also brings a sensible economic plan, and the political capital to carry it through.

A few weeks ago I visited Lima for the first time. The city has become the center of South America’s culinary universe, and with good reason. My first dive into Lima dining took place in one of the city’s many upscale eateries. The subtle electronic beats – not too loud, not too soft – emanating from the loudspeakers suggested Paris, or Oslo. The decor was contemporary classy. The food was incredible, beyond what I expected.

But the diners? They were whiter than me. Every time somebody came in, people would turn around to see who it was. It was the definition of an in place in a society where people still expect to know everyone else. Needless to say, the wait-staff were all Peruvians of indigenous descent. It was all one big Latin American cliche, like a dress rehearsal for the next Jaime Bayly novel.

As I breathed in the milieu, something else caught my eye: in every table, diners were wearing the same wristbands. My friends explained they were for PPK, the preferrred candidate of Lima’s elite.

“The rich people here hate Keiko,” my friend told me. “They can’t stand her father. The funny thing they do not realize, though, is that the only person standing in the way between Peru and a chavista revolution … is Keiko Fujimori.”

A few days after I had left, the country held the first round in their elections. PPK narrowly edged the chavista candidate Veronika Mendoza for second place, with Keiko Fujimori solidly in first. Polls suggest Keiko and PPK are neck-and-neck.

As we await tonight’s results, my friend’s phrase keeps coming back to me.

There is no doubt that Alberto Fujimori, Keiko’s father, was a dictator. After literally shutting down Congress, his rule descended into authoritarianism. His became a state where the national spy agency routinely preyed on political enemies, bribed politicians, and actively engaged in drug smuggling and human rights violations. Some of the charges against Fujimori, such as that he forcibly sterilized women, were thrown out by Peru’s courts, much to the dismay of the alleged victims.

He now sits in jail, justly so. But it would be stingy to deny that Fujimori laid the groundwork for much of Peru’s recent success.

Putting the country’s finances in order and ushering in a wave of privatization and deregulation are undoubtedly some of the key ingredients of the current Peruvian success story. So too is the defeat of the marxist guerrilla groups that almost turned the country into a failed state in the 1980s and early 1990s. That is also part of the Fujimori legacy.

But that’s Alberto. What about Keiko?

The people I spoke to, even those who did not like her, acknowledged two things: that she is articulate and smart; and that she is a capable politician. Just like her father in 1990, she brings an “outsider” appeal that endears her to many in Peru’s empoverished, historically excluded hinterlands. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the hatred the upper classes have toward the Fujimoris makes up a major part of their political capital.

Whoever wins today, Peru’s next wave of reforms requires at least two things: changing the country’s labor laws to make them more flexible, and incorporating large swathes of the informal economy into the formal sector.

The first reform will require a solid political base. The unions and the extreme left – which still draw considerable political support – will scream to the heavens. Drowning them out will require a strong bully pulpit, but also a healthy dose of populism. The Fujimori brand of politics, articulated by Keiko’s large majority in the incoming Congress (where her party will have 73 out of 130 deputies), will help in this regard. PPK would try to enact the same reform, sans the political base to do it.

As for bringing Peruvians into the formal economy, Fujimori has tapped the advice of Hernando de Soto, one of the world’s leading thinkers on the issue of using access to formal markets as a means to overcome poverty. De Soto is a Latin American giant who understands that poverty breeds quick-fix chavista “solutions” that end up overturning democracies. Keiko, it seems, also understands the urgency of addressing this.

Keiko has vowed not to pardon her father if elected. Nevertheless, many are suspicious that he will govern behind the throne, and that the same people who ran his authoritarian state will be in charge, once more, of the levers of power.

This is unacceptable to many, and I understand that. But a fair assessment of a candidate needs to take into account strengths and weaknesses. Any voter in Peru needs to ask themselves if they are rejecting Keiko because of policy, or because of genealogy.

They also need to be aware that the spectre of chavismo is latent in all of our societies, particularly one as stratified as Peru. Can a 77-year old economist who shed his American passport like last week keep the demons of chavismo at bay? Can a man elected for who he is not rather than who he is, with no base in Congress —zero—, be the solution to the anti-politics plague Peru has suffered the last fifteen years? Can an economic boom continue to be led by politicians nobody believes in? Is this sustainable?

If she were to win today, Keiko Fujimori would bring some foul-smelling baggage to Pizarro’s Palace. But she also has considerable political strengths which she will likely use to pass many of the same reforms PPK is vowing to enact.

In other words, at her best, Keiko could turn out to be a politically viable brand of sensible, pro-market populism, one that could help consolidate the economic model that has served Peru so well in recent years.

Along with their Sunday ceviche, that is something upper-class Fujimori-hating Peruvians need to chew on.