In the final weeks of a bruising presidential campaign, human rights activists and democracy defenders in Peru have rallied around left-wing nationalist candidate Ollanta Humala—not because they are overly confident in his candidacy, but because they fear a return to the past.
“From Humala we have doubts, but with Keiko we have proof,” they say, referring to the candidacy of Congresswoman Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, who is in jail on charges of corruption and human rights abuse.
Keiko has said she will not free her father if she is elected president, and that she suffered as a young woman watching the collapse of his regime—something she does not want her own two daughters to experience.
While most voters accept that Keiko, 36, is not her father—a fact of which she reminded them daily during the four weeks leading up to the run-off vote—they question why the young Fujimori has included many of her father’s advisors in his campaign, and why she has said he was the best president ever.
Keiko’s most extreme critics say she was complicit in the crimes of the elder Fujimori’s government because he appointed her First Lady at age 19, after divorcing her mother. According to these critics, Keiko traveled with her father and performed official functions in the latter half of his 10-year rule—the period during which the regime is accused of disappearing people and authorizing a death squad to carry out two massacres.
Keiko’s candidacy has left families of the disappeared in shock. Relatively small demonstrations protesting her candidacy have broken out in Lima and the northern city of Chiclayo, despite the fact that the industrial north is a Fujimori stronghold.
One group of female activists, who call themselves “Dignified Women against Keiko,” have struck out against Fujimori’s strong support among poor women, who see her as a successful role model. They point out that the elder Fujimori is accused of sterilizing some 300,000 women—many without consent—to curb population growth in rural and indigenous communities.
Peru’s most prominent gay rights groups signed a letter formally endorsing Humala—an ironic gesture, given that the former soldier’s parents are stridently homophobic (his mother said in 2006 that all homosexuals should be shot).
In another twist, after weeks of hesitation former President Alejandro Toledo came out in open support of Humala. During the first-round campaign, Toledo—who is credited with restoring Peru to democratic rule after the Fujimori regime—called a potential Humala government “a leap into the abyss.” But on Thursday evening, clenching hands with Humala during his closing campaign, a characteristically ornery Toledo proclaimed “I’m not willing to turn my back on democracyt—hat’s why I’m here.”
The irony is even greater when one considers that Humala’s brother Antauro is in jail for an attempted coup against Toledo, which left four policemen dead in 2005. An additional blow to Humala’s democratic credentials is his former ties to Venezuela’s socialist president Hugo Chavez, who endorsed his 2006 presidential bid. Around half of the electorate believes Humala’s more moderate persona is just an election ploy, according to pollster Ipsos Apoyo.
In spite of the uncertainties over Humala, his candidacy has gained the endorsement of Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa—frequently perceived as the country’s moral compass. Vargas Llosa himself lost the presidency to Keiko’s father in 1990. In the interim since then, he has become a well-known conservative, having broken away from the Latin American left.
But during this year’s campaign, Vargas Llosa has again had a change of heart. Accusing major news daily El Comercio of being “a propaganda machine” for Fujimori and “violating…the most elementary notions of objectivity and journalism ethics,” he has officially announced his support for Humala and decided to publish his weekly column in left-leaning La República instead. El Comercio, which also controls Peru’s most important television channels, is largely thought to favor Fujimori and has tried to turn the human rights tide in her favor by tying Humala to the Madre Mia incident, in which army officers were accused of torture and other human rights violations in the 1990s.
With polls putting the two candidates in an unprecedented technical tie just days from the second round of voting, precisely half the country is likely to be disappointed by the final count.
For guardians of Peru’s tenuous human rights advances and young, fragile democracy, that will be all the more reason for vigilance during the next five years.
*Caroline Stauffer is a guest blogger to AQ Online. She is a Lima-based correspondent for Thomson Reuters and a former Americas Quarterly editorial associate.