In Peru, the Daughter Who Would Be President Too

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Geraldo Caso / AFP / Getty

Keiko Fujimori, right, Fuerza 2011 Party presidential candidate and daughter of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, is accompanied by her husband Mark Villanella as she waves at supporters before a candidates' debate in Lima on March 13, 2011

Keiko Fujimori is running for President of Peru under a shadow that will never dissipate: that of her father. He is at once an important reason for the viability of her candidacy as well as a cautionary tale, the lessons of which she must insist she has learned.

Alberto Fujimori was President of Peru from 1990 to 2000 and was credited with, among other things, the revival of the economy and the brutal suppression of the leftist uprising that made the country a byword for terrorism in Latin America. As a result, the elder Fujimori is now sitting in prison: a cozy one by most standards; indeed, built specifically for him; but a penitentiary nevertheless. While his case is still under appeal, he could be in jail for a quarter-century.

Keiko Fujimori has spent the past couple of months trying to dispel the impression that she is merely a stand-in for her father. "They are trying to say that my father is influencing the campaign, but it's not true," she says. "He is in prison. I make the decisions. I picked the campaign team and wrote the government plan. I am here talking to Peruvians, not my father." She is adamant. "If my opponents want to think otherwise, they have underestimated me. Let them continue thinking that way."

If she wins the June 5 runoff against her left-wing opponent Ollanta Humala, she will become the country's first female President, its youngest head of state (if by just two days; she turns 36 on Wednesday, May 25) and the first child of a President to be elected to the same office. She would also be the first woman of Asian descent to rule a nation in the Americas, as well as the first person with an M.B.A. to govern Peru, having graduated from Columbia University in 2006. And while the past two Presidents have also had foreign-born spouses, she would be the first with a U.S.-born First Gentleman — Mark Villanella, a Jersey boy.

So far, she can claim a dramatic turnaround in her campaign. Going into the first round of voting in April, her support fluctuated around 20%, which most opponents and pundits attributed to the core support for her father. Part of that support was due to an original pledge to free her father. She has since stepped back from that, though partisans still believe she may take action on his imprisonment if elected.

However, 76% of voters in the first round, which included 11 candidates, remembered the long list of crimes from her father's government. The elder Fujimori fled Peru for Japan in November 2000 as a corruption scandal tore apart his administration. The Germany-based anticorruption organization Transparency International calls his regime a "kleptocracy" and lists him among the top 10 most corrupt leaders in modern times. Some estimates put the amount of money allegedly stolen by his regime at more than $1.5 billion.

Keiko Fujimori has managed to rebrand herself, partly because of a savvy campaign that focuses simply on her first name — the symbol of her Fuerza 2011 Party is a K for Keiko, putting distance between her and her father. She has also benefited from Humala's negative ratings, which are on a par with her own. A former Army officer, Humala has been plagued by memories of his 2006 failed presidential bid, in which he was linked to Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. Fear of this leftist bond lingers, even though he denies it exists. Most of Peru's media are unabashedly opposed to Humala.

Nevertheless, the first round of voting gave Humala 32% of the vote to Fujimori's 24%. She now has 43% to his 39%, according to the most respected polling firm, Ipsos Apoyo. The difference is still within the margin of error, and the polls do not include many rural areas where Humala is strong. A defining moment could be the presidential debate scheduled for May 29.

Fujimori insists she is naturally shy. But there has been no evidence of that inclination in her campaign. It was not present on May 22, when she attended meetings in jungle towns along a stretch of highway from Tarapoto to Yurimaguas in the northern jungle. She graciously accepted flowers offered by supporters, took hats from women in the crowd — women accounted for the bulk of the townsfolk who braved the midday jungle sun to hear her — and easily launched into a spiel tailor-made for each audience.

As she campaigns, she offers to install running water in towns where there is none, offer school breakfast and lunch programs, provide free uniforms and shoes for grade schoolers and create a much more active state. Tossed into the mix are airports, hospitals, universities and a string of other major infrastructure undertakings. The promises, which sound extremely ambitious for a five-year presidential term, and her folksy style have helped erase the six-point advantage enjoyed by Humala with just two weeks to go before the election.

Fujimori says the tide has turned. "There are huge crowds wherever we go. You get a feeling that people know that we are the winning option," she says as she tosses T-shirts from the window of her car to supporters lining the streets.

Jair Rodriguez, 20, a college student who was on hand to greet Fujimori when she landed at the airport in Tarapoto, says he is voting for her because of her ideas but also because of her father. "The President [Alberto Fujimori] saved our country from terrorism and created the foundation for today's growth. We shouldn't forget the past," he says. If she does win, she owes part of the victory to her imprisoned dad.