With sister in jail, is this Kenji Fujimori's moment in Peru?

Luis Jaime CISNEROS
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Kenji Fujimori, son of ex-president Alberto Fujimori, speaks to reporters in Lima on October 3, 2018

With Peru's opposition leader Keiko Fujimori in prison and no obvious successor in place, the movement created by her father Alberto Fujimori now faces a key decision on its leadership.

Who will carry the mantle of one of Latin America's best known political dynasties -- her brother Kenji or someone from outside the family?

It's a question that has taxed political circles here in the weeks since Keiko, 43, began serving a 36-month preventive jail sentence as investigators probe whether she received kickbacks from Brazil construction firm Odebrecht to fund her 2011 presidential campaign.

Her lawyer is appealing the sentence but even if she returns to the political fray, her battered reputation means her chances of winning a presidential election in 2021 look slim.

"With Keiko in charge, there is no political future for Fujimorism," said analyst Juan Carlos Tafur.

The Popular Force party Keiko founded to carry on her father's political movement has staggered under the weight of the anti-corruption probe, with several top officials also in the prosecutor's line of fire.

Attention has turned to her lawmaker brother Kenji, 38, whom she has marginalized in a bitter party dispute. She had Congress strip him of his parliamentary seat in June after another lawmaker accused him of vote-buying.

The siblings have long been locked in a war over their father's political legacy.

Frail and 80, the elder Fujimori's chronic heart condition has left him looking on from his hospital bed, unable to use his still-considerable influence to turn the tide back in Keiko's favor.

The disgraced former president has been in the clinic since early October when a judge ordered him back to back to prison after annulling a presidential pardon for crimes against humanity.

Fujimori, president from 1990-2000, retains much popularity in the country, having been credited with rescuing Peru from economic and political collapse in the 1980s and defeating a bloody insurgency by Maoist Shining Path guerrillas.

- Two scenarios -

Analysts say he is faced with two scenarios: reconciliation between the newly humbled Keiko and Kenji, or a definitive family break-up and with it, likely disintegration of Peru's biggest political party.

Kenji himself hopes to form a breakaway party to mount his own a bid for the presidency in 2021.

"Kenji could be the only option to keep the party on track, but I think it's unlikely that the two siblings will reconcile," said Tafur.

Political scientist Carlos Melendez told AFP that "the idea of Kenji taking over the party leadership is still a distant possibility," given the vote-buying scandal and his ensuing isolation by the party.

With Keiko in prison, analysts say the party is on life support. But they point out that it has been through worse, and arguably emerged stronger when Keiko took up the reins after her father was forced to resign in a corruption scandal in 2000.

"Fujimorism is today in one of its deepest crises, similar to the one in 2000, but not as bad," said commentator Augusto Alvarez.

"It's not dead, though it will never again reach the splendor of 2016" -- when legislative elections saw it wrest control of Congress -- said Alvarez, a columnist with daily La Republica.

The collapse of Fujimori's government in 2000 shattered the political momentum he generated with three presidential election victories over the previous decade.

His chosen candidate in a 2001 election, former economy minister Carlos Bolona, took less than two percent of the vote, and his party fared little better in 2006.

Fujimorism returned with a bang in 2006, when Keiko accepted her father's request to enter politics and she became the biggest vote-winner in Congress.

Keiko ran for the presidency in 2011 and took 48.5 percent of the vote. She polled 49.9 percent of the vote in 2016, losing to economist Pedro Pablo Kuczynski by just 40,000 votes.

An embittered Keiko led what many observers saw as a personal vendetta against Kuczynski in Congress. He was eventually forced to resign in March, amid the fallout from the Odebrecht scandal that has now also ensnared her.

- Back to the future -

The wear and tear caused by their legal troubles and the family feud has taken its toll at the polls. Fujimori's party didn't take a single governorship or mayor's office among the 25 up for grabs in regional and municipal elections held on October 7.

In a country divided between pro- and anti- "Fujimoristas," the challenge of the old man's political heirs is to hark back to the past, and link it to the future, according to Melendez.

"It must regenerate its political capital based on the memory of the founding leader, because it is he who can still show concrete results like economic recovery and ending social crisis," said Melendez.