The Fujimori Effect: Political Instability and Paralysis in Peru

The legacy of Fujimorismo lives on under the current administration of Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.

December 29, 2017

2016 demonstration commemorating the April 5, 1992 Peruvian constitutional crisis under Alberto Fujimori, often described as an "autogolpe de estado." (ClavarClavitos/Flickr)

On December 21, Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s stood on trial for a congressional impeachment hearing. “I have nothing to hide. I love my country, my people, and I try to serve them every day with honor and dignity… I beg Congress not to vote for my impeachment. You won’t harm me personally, rather you will harm the country,” he said during the final moments of his trial.

President Kuczynski had been called in to testify about payments that one of his businesses received from the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht. After hours of testimony by both the president and his lawyer, Congress deliberated, then voted. In a late-night vote, he garnered just enough congressional support to stay in office.

Days later it became apparent that Kuczynski had negotiated with former president Alberto Fujimori’s son, Kenji, to stay in power. In return, Kuczynski had agreed to pardon Alberto Fujimori on humanitarian grounds and release him from jail. Fujimori, Peru’s autocratic leader from 1990-2000, had been sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2009 for corruption and crimes against humanity. The congressional battles preceding the impeachment, the impeachment itself, and PPK’s pardoning of Fujimori are the latest illustration of the political instability and paralysis plaguing this Andean nation. They also characterize the long-term legacies that a leader like Alberto Fujimori leaves in place, even two decades after leaving power. The country’s experience serves as a warning to other countries ruled by leaders who dismantle political institutions to serve their personal goals.

Many Peruvians hoped that the election of current president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (popularly known as PPK), in 2016, would disrupt a political situation characterized by crisis, gridlock, and corruption. Instead, political instability has been exacerbated, rather than alleviated, under PPK’s leadership.

An Unlikely Presidential Win

PPK’s 2016 presidential win was unlikely from the start. A former World Bank economist, he had spent so long living in English-speaking countries that he spoke Spanish with an accent when he returned to the national political stage in 2000. After serving in several cabinet positions between 2001 and 2006 under President Alejandro Toledo, PPK ran for president in 2011 but was defeated by Ollanta Humala—now in jail on corruption charges. PPK, running with the Peruanos por el Kambio (Peruvians for Change) party, threw his hat into the ring again in 2016. In the first round of the presidential election, ten candidates participated, down from an original 18. The election took a complicated turn when the National Election Board (JNE) disqualified two popular candidates, Julio Guzmán and César Acuña, ostensibly due to inappropriate campaign procedures, though critics called it a political move.

It was the first time since 2000 that the JNE had played such an active role in determining the candidate pool. In the end, the decision benefited the relatively uncharismatic PPK. He and Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori, moved on to the second round.

The Peruvian electorate’s skepticism about Keiko’s commitment to democracy and transparency led to several protests under the slogan “No a Keiko.” Corruption allegations against Keiko emerged in the weeks before the second-round election, as polls showed her numbers falling. In the end, PPK barely won the presidential post with 50.12 percent of the vote, a margin of slightly more than 41,000 votes—the closest electoral margin in recent Peruvian history.

Obstruction and Corruption Scandals Escalate

Although Keiko lost the presidential race, the political party that she leads, Fuerza Popular (Popular Force), performed very well in the April congressional elections, winning 73 of 130 seats in Peru’s unicameral legislature. One of the party’s seats stayed with her brother, Kenji, who had been elected to Congress as a member of Popular Force in 2011. PPK’s party, Peruvians for Change, performed poorly, winning just 18 seats. These results guaranteed a divided government, and relentless political battles have ensued.

In particular, since PPK’s inauguration in July 2016, his administration has faced incessant problems that have paralyzed the country’s democratic progress. The most pressing challenge, which culminated in the recent impeachment trial of PPK, is Congress’s obstructionist strategy to undermine the executive branch, spearheaded by the Popular Force party. The strategy began when Popular Force and another opposition party, the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA), joined forces to censure PPK’s Education Minister, Jaime Saavedra, in December 2016. Congress accused Saavedra of mishandling preparations for the 2019 Pan-American Games, scheduled to take place in Peru. Congress followed a process known as “interpellation,” which involved summoning cabinet members to testify in front of the entire body and then vote on censure. If the cabinet member does not receive enough votes in their favor, then they are forced to resign. The only way to avoid the censure vote is if the cabinet member wins a vote of confidence from Congress. Saavedra lost this vote and was forced to step down

Buoyed by success, Keiko’s alliance continued to target cabinet members following a familiar formula. In May 2017, Congress called the Minister of Transportation and Communication, Martín Vizcarra, to testify. He was questioned about a contracts amendment for the Chinchero Airport, a project near Cusco, Peru. The opposition accused the Ministry of improperly amending a government contract to give the contractor especially generous terms. After his interpellation, Vizcarra resigned. In June, Congress called the Economy and Finance Ministyer Alfredo Thorne to testify after audio recordings of a conversation between him and the government’s controller about the same airport contract leaked. Thorne invoked his constitutional privilege to ask for a vote of confidence, which was denied. He was then also forced to resign. In June Congress also initiated a censure trial for Carlos Basombrío, Minister of the Interior, but Basombrío squeaked through the process and remained in office.

The opposition’s strategy eventually led to the complete reshuffling of the cabinet when Congress began hearings against the Minister of Education, Marilú Martens in September. At this point PPK’s administration decided to take a harder line stance against their legislative adversaries. Prime Minister Fernando Zavala, the head of the cabinet, called a vote of confidence for the entire cabinet. On September 14, the no confidence vote passed, forcing the entirety of PPK’s cabinet, including Zavala, to resign. PPK quickly appointed a new cabinet as his popularity continued to decline.

All of this led to the most recent chapter in this unfolding story: PPK’s impeachment trial, whose outcome has everything to do with the continuing legacy of Fujimorismo in Peru. The body ultimately did not reach the two-thirds majority to impeach due to several abstentions, believed to have been orchestrated by Kenji Fujimori in exchange for the presidential pardoning of his father.

Yet PPK is just one of dozens of national politicians, including Keiko Fujimori, linked to high-level corruption scandals tied to Odebrecht. When Odebrecht’s president was arrested in Brazil in the midst of the Operation Lava Jato (“Carwash”), several international investigations followed. In 2015, the Lava Jato investigation blew open in Peru when Odebrecht and a subsidiary, Braskem, pled guilty in the United States for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. This plea led to a series of corruption scandals that have implicated government officials at the highest levels in countries across Latin America. As part of the case, Odebrecht admitted to paying $29 million in bribes in Peru between 2005 and 2014. These scandals have touched every president who held office in the last thirty years. Former president Humala (2011-2016) and his wife Nadine are sitting in jail awaiting trial. Another former president, Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006), faces an international warrant for his arrest.                 

Beyond continuing instability, these events have also prevented Peruvian politicians from passing much needed policy reforms. For example, PPK’s campaign promise to reform the judicial system has been completely stalled. According to some reports, Peruvians distrust the judicial branch more than citizens in any other country in Latin America. Deep-rooted systemic problems, such as poorly-trained and under-funded police forces and an Attorney General’s office plagued by corruption charges, have allowed crime and corruption to flourish elsewhere in society. Illegal networks in the judiciary have implicated high-level officials, even as a culture of impunity prevails. Yet the current legislative gridlock prevents a major reform from moving forward.

The administration has also not been able to undertake important reconstruction efforts after the deadly coastal flooding that took place in early 2017. The rains and flooding killed more than 100 people and negatively affected more than one million people through damages to roads, bridges, and homes. Political battles with Congress have consumed the legislative agenda, to the detriment of reconstruction efforts, and many of the needed repairs have not been completed.

Why, after almost two decades of free and fair electoral cycles, does Peru continue to struggle with so many aspects of democratic governance? The answer is complex, but partly lies in the long-term legacy of Alberto Fujimori himself.

Persisting Legacies of Fuijimorismo

Alberto Fujimori and his top advisors systematically dismantled Peru’s democratic institutions from the moment he set foot in office in 1990. In addition to his wide measures to reform the economy through an orthodox structural adjustment reform, he shut down the legislature in 1992 to tame opposition in Congress and ostensibly promote his anti-terrorism agenda, calling for a Constitutional Assembly. His new constitution set up a unicameral legislature, which became dominated by his political party after subsequent elections. With his top advisor, former defense attorney Vladimiro Montesinos, he set to work to implement what they called a “direct” democratic system—supposedly bypassing political parties to work directly with the people. Most of the political parties that had traditionally enjoyed support collapsed as a result. He also shut down regional governments and replaced them with appointed “presidents,” or governors.

As part of his tough stand against the Shining Path, a Maoist organization that originated in the highlands of Peru, he also empowered paramilitary forces to brutally go after suspected terrorists. These forces served as de facto death squads that eliminated civilians who were accused of having ties to any terrorist organization. The atrocities that resulted were directly tied to Alberto Fujimori’s orders.

The Fujimori years came to an abrupt end after videotapes of Montesinos bribing congressmen and judges were leaked to the media in 2000. It later came to light that Montesinos had kept detailed records, including videos (called “Vladi-videos”), of his transactions. Fujimori and Montesinos allegedly stole millions from the state treasury to fund their efforts. Transparency International has estimated that up to $600 million disappeared during his ten years in office. The pair bought off legislators, judges, local leaders, media owners, and investors to ensure support. When the videos were released, both Fujimori and Montesinos fled the country and were later caught and tried. Fujimori was eventually jailed for crimes against humanity due his deployment of the special military forces that killed dozens of innocent people during his “war on terror.” His sentence emerged as a landmark case among international human rights advocates, as he was the first democratically elected head of state to be tried and found guilty of crimes in his own country. His recent release threatens to erase decades of work to hold him accountable for his crimes.

Even from prison, Fujimori’s tactics and networks contributed to the political uncertainty and instability in Peru in both direct and indirect ways. The direct link lies in his children’s political power. Keiko Fujimori rose to fame when her parents divorced in 1994 and she assumed the position of First Lady when she was nineteen years old. As a politician, she has successfully borrowed from her father’s style, and her party is especially popular among Lima’s poor and in rural areas. Like her father, she appeals to anti-establishment voters and garners support from many powerful socially-conservative forces in Peru, such as the Catholic Church, and several business sectors, including mining and external trade. According to an October 2017 survey, more Peruvians supported her than any other political leader in the country, including PPK. Although she did recently distance herself from her father, many assume that Fujimori’s network of allies, which her critics refer to as a “mafia,” continues to finance her campaigns and political party.

Meanwhile, the systematic disempowerment of political parties has left its mark on the political system. Most of Peru’s other political parties are extremely weak, a phenomenon that Peruvian analysts and citizens have lamented for decades. Peruvian political parties are ephemeral and personalistic, forming for elections around a political personality, and then often dying out quickly. The fujimorista party, although it has changed names, is one of the few parties that continue to exist and gain strength. Keiko’s supporters’ end game is unclear, but the recent pardoning Alberto Fujimori and Keiko’s continued public and media presence suggest they aim to return of the Fujimori family to the highest elected seat in the country.

Furthermore, corruption continues to pervade every aspect of Peru’s public sphere, from low-level bureaucrats to the highest-level elected officials. Almost two decades after the release of the Vladi-tapes, a culture of corruption persists. A foundational part of Fujimori’s strategy had been to methodically and systematically set up illicit networks and weaken institutions that might have targeted corruption in the 1990s. The majority of citizens view corruption as the worst problem facing the country, and 70% agree that this problem has gotten worse.

The current state of Peruvian politics emerges as a cautionary tale for the long-term political futures of countries led by autocrats who systematically dismantle political institutions under the guise of elected leadership. Rigorous efforts to restructure and strengthen democratic institutions and attack illicit networks must take place when these leaders step down. Reformers must focus on strengthening political party systems, anti-corruption institutions, judicial branches, and civil society organizations to protect and fortify democracy. If not, a vicious cycle of instability and uncertainty will most likely persist for decades—with tragic consequences.

Stephanie McNulty is an Associate Professor of Government at Franklin and Marshall College. She has written extensively on democracy, citizen participation, and decentralization in Peru since the mid-1990s. She recently spent seven months in Lima, where she researched citizen participation in urban politics.

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