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Alberto Fujimori's daughter inching closer to becoming next president of Peru

Keiko Fujimori during a campaign rally in Ayacucho, Peru, on Jan. 27, 2016.

Keiko Fujimori during a campaign rally in Ayacucho, Peru, on Jan. 27, 2016.  (ap)

For 40-year-old Keiko Fujimori, her father's legacy is a blessing and a curse.

The front-runner in Peru’s presidential election on April 10 has the solid backing of one-third of the electorate, but lacks the simple majority needed to avoid a runoff.

Many Peruvians simply can't separate the younger Fujimori from her father Alberto, who is serving concurrent 25-year prison terms for corruption and sanctioning death squads. They don't believe she has divorced herself from her father's corrupt coterie and distrust her seemingly permanent campaign smile.

"She lived amid corruption and never said a thing," said Norma Azparrent, who was among several dozen protesters taking part in an anti-Fujimori demonstration in the regional capital of Ayacucho during the January campaign swing.

"She has deceived all the peasants, making them believe her father's government built schools with public funds when they stole a lot more."

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But those who support her point out the "efficiency" with which her father built schools and defeated the fanatical leftist insurgency in Ayacucho and elsewhere.

"Her father remains in people's hearts in the countryside because no other president gave them weapons, animals, seeds, food and clothing," said Alejandro Ccente, a teacher from the nearby village of Uchuraccay.

The most recent surveys place her in a virtual dead heat in a scheduled June 5 runoff with her closest challenger, former Inter-American Development Bank economist and deputy minister Julio Guzman.

Fujimori’s critics fear that Keiko Fujimori as president would pardon her father and revive will revive a hardline regime that pillaged the treasury and violated human rights.

But she has dismissed the claims and said she would not pardon her father.

"If I'm elected president of Peru, it will be I who governs," she declared in a recent campaign stop.

Yet Keiko Fujimori denies her father committed any crimes.

Alberto Fujimori, in prison since 2007, fled into exile in 2000 after videos emerged of his spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, buying the loyalty of politicians and business executives.

He is accused of trampling democracy by shutting down Congress after only two years in office, spying on journalists and even kidnapping one, looting the treasury and engineering re-election by paying tabloids to defame opponents.

She says he only made mistakes, the biggest being allowing Montesinos too much power. Montesinos is also imprisoned on multiple convictions, including running guns to Colombian rebels and organizing death squads.

It's not just the legacy of her father and Montesinos that dogs Fujimori's candidacy. The very composition of her party's leadership raises doubts about her pledge of zero corruption.

The congressman serving as secretary general of her Fuerza Popular party, Joaquin Ramirez, is under investigation for suspected money laundering, while the top congressional candidate on her list, incumbent Cecilia Chacon, has been fighting charges of illicit enrichment for 14 years. And that's just upper management.

Fujimori herself has been questioned over how her father was able to afford the $1.2 million it cost to give her and her three siblings U.S. educations.

In a January forum on corruption attended by candidates, the mother of 7- and 9-year-old daughters acknowledged "there can be some doubts. But I want to say that I have suffered and carried a heavy load due to other's mistakes. ... I will not let my daughters bear the same load."

Transparency International has estimated Alberto Fujimori stole $600 million from the state, hardly any of it recovered. Anti-corruption state attorneys say the 104 fugitives from justice from his government include four of Keiko Fujimori's aunts and uncles as well as a cousin.

The Fujimori legacy stirs great passion in Peru, with small anti-Fujimori protests repeatedly flaring during the campaign.

In Ayacucho, where the Shining Path was born, Azparrent and the other protesters greeted the candidate on a central square with shouts of "Father and daughter, the same garbage!" In the southern city of Arequipa, a top campaign official called the protesters "terrorists."

Married to 39-year-old American real-estate developer Mark Villanella, who she met while both were MBA students at Columbia University, Fujimori has never worked in the private sector. In 2006 she was elected to Congress with more votes than any congressional candidate has ever received.

In 2011, she lost the presidency by just three percentage points.

Inside her Fuerza Popular movement, there is an intense rivalry between the "Keikistas" who favor her and the "Albertistas" loyal to her father.

Political scientist Milagros Rejas thinks that if Fujimori wins the presidency she will face a difficult dilemma. The Albertistas would exert intense pressure to pardon her 77-year-old father, she said.

But ordering him freed would effectively sideline her — and disgust most Peruvians, Rejas said.

"She would be putting a noose around her neck."

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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