The Right, Resurgent: Peru’s President sparks fears of pardon for former dictator Fujimori

Since the beginning of October, many Peruvians have doubtlessly been preoccupied by the national football team’s fixtures against Argentina and Colombia.

Since the beginning of October, many Peruvians have doubtlessly been preoccupied by the national football team’s fixtures against Argentina and Colombia, and the increasing likelihood that Peru will soon qualify for their first World Cup since 1974. A recent statement by President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (known as PPK), however, has sparked fresh concerns that the former authoritarian leader Alberto Fujimori may be pardoned and released from prison, amid an ongoing power struggle between the President and the Peruvian Right.

Over the past few months, Peru has seen a series of political crises which have undermined the power of PPK. Led by Keiko Fujimori, who is the daughter of the former President (currently serving 25 years in prison for human rights abuses), the right-wing, populist Fuerza Popular (FP) hold 71 of the 130 seats in the Peruvian Congress, and have used their position to exert political pressure on the current President. As such, Keiko and the FP appear to be governing the country from the shadows, and those opposed to the political power of the Fujimori family fear that, in order to appease his opponents, PPK is moving to enact a Presidential pardon to release Alberto Fujimori from prison. This is, therefore, a crucial juncture for Peru, which not only reflects a struggle for power between political factions, but also the re-emerging spectre of violence, insurgency and dictatorship found in Peru’s recent past.

Alberto Fujimori and Peru’s internal armed conflict

Between 1980 and 1990, the Peruvian state was engaged in a brutal conflict with the Maoist insurgent group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) - and, to a lesser extent, the Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru (MRTA) - in which almost 70,000 Peruvians died. During the conflict, Peru descended into economic crisis whilst widespread violence was perpetrated against civilians by insurgents, the Peruvian armed forces, and armed peasant patrols. In this context, Alberto Fujimori was elected President in 1990 on the promise that he would deal with Peru’s “twin fires” of insurgency and hyperinflation, and that he would do it without enacting the neoliberal shock programme proposed by his rival (the famous novelist Mario Vargas Llosa).

After winning the Presidency, however, Fujimori performed a classic bait-and-switch, enacting his own “Fujishock” programme. The prices of many basic commodities tripled and quadrupled overnight, affecting the poorest and most vulnerable of Peruvian society. Fujimori also gave extensive new powers to the armed forces to tackle Shining Path, and presided over a severe intensification of state violence. In 1992, Fujimori further concentrated power in his own hands by enacting what is known as the autogolpe: a “self-coup” in which he dissolved Congress and continued to rule through the authority of the military.

In September of the same year, Shining Path’s leader Abimael Guzmán was captured in Lima, and Fujimori’s economic reforms had stabilised prices (albeit at a high level). For many Peruvians therefore, Fujimori’s legacy is one of safety and stability. For other communities, however, Fujimori’s legacy is one of violence, corruption and suffering. He was initially imprisoned for ordering the Barrios Altos and La Cantuta massacres (in 1991 and 1992 respectively) and his government participated in the consistent repression of opposition: in political parties, trade unions, student organisations, and in civil society. In 1995-6, his government embarked upon a programme of sterilisations in order to reduce poverty; a programme which overwhelmingly targeted women in rural, indigenous communities and performed the sterilisations without their consent. Fujimori’s regime, which lasted until 2000, was also characterised by the widespread corruption which plagues Peruvian politics to this day.

Fujimori’s opponents therefore envision that the election of his daughter Keiko to the Presidency would see Peru return to an authoritarian, corrupt regime with close ties to the military. In this context, the pardon and release of Fujimori has the potential to further embolden FP and the populist Right.

The present crisis

PPK has had a narrow grip on power since the 2016 election in which his party (Peruanos Por el Kambio – also PPK) won only 17 seats in Congress. The former Wall Street banker won that election due to a complex number of factors, including the expulsion of two potential favourites (Cesar Acuña and Julio Guzmán) during the campaign, the weakness of the Peruvian Left, and the presence of a strong anti-Fujimorista movement which had also mobilised in 2006 and 2011 against Keiko’s candidacy. The winners of those two elections were both leaders of ostensibly Leftist parties, but Presidents Alan García (his second term) and Ollanta Humala both committed themselves to the continuation of Peru’s neoliberal revolution begun by Alberto Fujimori in 1990. In 2016, therefore, PPK became the latest President to be elected as representative of neoliberalism and of the anti-Fujimori movement, despite his weak position in Congress.

Between June and September 2017, during a wave of teachers’ strikes across the country, FP again tested PPK’s weak grip on power and demanded the dismissal of the new Education minister, Marilú Martens. As FP increasingly exerted pressure on the President, the party then demanded that PPK remove his own Cabinet and Prime Minister Fernando Zavala. On 17 September, PPK announced a new, more conservative cabinet in order to appease FP, replacing the Prime Minister, justice, education, health, finance and housing ministers.

Centrist and Leftist opponents of PPK and FP, including the Leftist coalition Frente Amplio, have accused the President of giving in to the Fujimoristas and fear that PPK is preparing to pardon the father of their movement. This appeared to be even clearer after Peru’s Justice Minister reconfirmed the Presidential Pardons Commission on 7 October, and after a speech by Kuczynski in which he stated that he did not want “a new Legúia”.

This statement was in reference to another former President, Augusto B. Leguía, who (after having come to power for the second time during a military coup of his own) was overthrown in a coup led by Luis Miguel Sánchez Cerro and died in prison, two years later, in 1932. Although he says that he is concerned that Fujimori will die of illness in prison, Kuczynski’s historical reference and equivalence between Leguía and Fujimori has horrified many. Whilst Leguía was imprisoned as a political rival during the process of a military coup, Fujimori was imprisoned by a democratic government for the massacres which he had ordered and which were perpetrated by the infamous Grupo Colina death squad. Since his imprisonment, Fujimori has also been trialled and found guilty of charges relating to corruption and bribery.

Where next for Peru?

Despite the existence of a strong anti-Fujimorista movement in Peru, this movement is split between the Left and the neoliberal centre-right: a factor which had a direct impact on PPK becoming President. Frente Amplio performed better in the 2016 elections than was expected, but have limited power in Congress. The Leftist coalition participated in significant ¡Keiko, no va! marches in 2016, and has a strong base of support in the south-central Andean region where much of the internal conflict took place, but their only chance of challenging the power of FP is by establishing a broader coalition with other opposition parties.

Ironically, such an opportunity could be presented by FP’s own politicking. Should PPK resist their calls for a pardon and FP call another vote of no-confidence in the Cabinet, Peru may have to return to the polls in the near future. With economic growth having slowed in recent years and the potential of a Fujimori pardon on the horizon, it is possible that a centre-Left coalition could gain significant ground and, crucially, place their candidate into the highly likely and crucial run-off against Keiko. How such a coalition could come about, and how the Peruvian Left could participate without seriously compromising their own values, however, is a difficult question to answer. In the near future, however, it appears likely that FP will continue to exert their power to try and secure Fujimori’s pardon.


Daniel Willis (@not_djw)

Daniel Willis writes about Latin American history and politics, with a particular focus on Peru, global commodity chains and extractivism.