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Allegations of Giving Voters Cash Could Disqualify Peru’s Presidential Frontrunner

The expulsion of Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of jailed hard-right former president Alberto Fujimori, would plunge the elections into chaos. Not doing so would shred what little credibility the electoral authorities have left.
Photo by Martin Mejia, File/AP Images

With the first round of Peru's presidential elections just three weeks away, the controversial frontrunner is facing possible expulsion from the race amid a crisis of confidence in the ability of the electoral authorities to ensure a fair competition.

The country's electoral tribunal, known as the JNE, has until Monday to decide whether Keiko Fujimori distributed cash at a campaign event. This is a violation of a new electoral law that carries automatic expulsion.

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Ending the presidential bid of the 40-year-old daughter of jailed hard-right former president Alberto Fujimori at this late stage would blow the elections wide open — and plunge Peru into chaos. But allowing Keiko to continue campaigning for the April 10 first round vote could shred what little credibility the JNE has left in the context of already widespread accusations of unfairness.

Last week the tribunal expelled two of her rivals, second placed Julio Guzmán on a minor technicality, and fifth placed César Acuña for the same offense Keiko is now accused of, handing out cash at one of his rallies.

"There is a widespread perception now that this is not a fully legitimate process, that the cards have been stacked and the rules are being applied unevenly and unfairly," Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist who writes an influential newspaper column in Peru, told VICE News.

The JNE is investigating five separate complaints that Keiko presided over an awards ceremony at a Valentine's Day breakdancing competition in the port city of Callao, adjacent to the capital Lima.

A video widely circulated in the Peruvian media shows Fujimori giving a speech during the event, organised by a youth group backing her campaign, at which winners were given prizes of 300 Peruvian sols (88 dollars).

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Peru's strict — and critics say poorly drafted — new electoral law states that any candidate who distributes items that are not campaign materials and worth more than 19.75 sols (5.8 dollars) must be expelled. The sanction applies whether a candidate personally gives out the gifts or whether campaign activists do so on their behalf.

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"There is pretty clear videotaped evidence that Keiko Fujimori also was involved in giving away money," says Levistky. "Either the JNE loses whatever credibility it has left, or it also takes out the front runner."

Carlos Rivera, a leading Peruvian human rights and anti-corruption figure, added: "It looks like a raffle. But it is clearly an electoral tactic, part of her campaign to become president. It is exactly what the law prohibits."

The JNE has yet to investigate another Fujimorista campaign event earlier this month in the northern Andean region of Cajamarca, where more than 1,000 moto taxi drivers gathered to hear the candidate speak. Local media interviewed several who said they had each been paid 40 sols ($11.80) to show up.

Many believe that JNE members selectively used confusing red tape to target Guzmán and Acuña, in order to favor Keiko and powerful former president Alan García.

García is running for a third term, but is hampered by 85 percent disapproval ratings and has around just six percent support. Two of the three JNE judges who voted against Julio Guzmán have ties to García's APRA party that has long been accused of entrenched corruption.

"You would have to be naïve not to realize that some very strange things are going on in Peru. This inconsistency, this incoherence, is not a legal issue. This is a political issue," Guzmán told VICE News. "The law has been applied in a completely selective and discriminatory way."

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The 45-year-old centre-right policy wonk was looking like he could become a real threat to Keiko in the June 5 runoff vote, just before he was barred. He is now planning to take his complaints about his exclusion to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

A member of a lower panel, the Special Electoral Tribunal, involved in the decision-making over candidates, has been linked to Vladimiro Montesinos, Alberto Fujimori's Machiavellian national security adviser, who is also serving a lengthy jail term on corruption charges.

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The electoral authorities did not respond to requests for an interview with panel members who voted against Guzmán.

But the JNE did issue a statement in which one of them, Baldomero Elías Ayvar Carrasco, denied local reports alleging he took bribes in a separate case involving a city mayor. He claimed the allegations were "defamatory" and "completely false."

Critics say that even if the electoral tribunal members are genuinely impartial, the mere appearance of a possible connection with a rival political party should have seen them withdraw from hearing Guzmán's case.

Meanwhile, with Keiko consistently polling between 30 and 35 percent, and after Guzmán being dropped from the race, the best placed candidate to compete with her is Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Widely known as PPK, the 77-year-old free market capitalist and former prime minister is polling around 14 percent.

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Behind him two candidates are tied on around nine percent, Alfredo Barnachea, 63, a center-left former journalist and skilled debater, and Veronika Mendoza, a 35-year-old leftist congresswoman, who has been the only presidential candidate to speak out against Guzmán's treatment. Both rail against Peru's corruption and inequality.

Since Guzmán's expulsion, polls have shown PPK and Barnachea in a statistical dead heat with Keiko if they reach the runoff vote.

Some suggest that the perception of unfairness in the process has awakened the deep current of anti-Fujimorista public opinion. There were marches and rallies against the potential return to power of the Fujimori movement, and several violent clashes between rival activists, in Lima and other cities at the weekend.

Keiko is running on the populist authoritarian legacy of her father who is now serving a 25-year prison term for embezzlement, directing death squads, and bribing the press to smear his opponents. She has so far avoided commenting in detail on the accusations of vote-buying and left her defense to others.

"You don't see her handing over money. Keiko did not touch the envelopes," her vice presidential candidate José Chlimper said of the Valentine's Day competition that could see her pushed out of the presidential race. "The Virgin protected her."

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Follow Simeon Tegel on Twitter: @SimeonTegel