Peruvians might be forgiven for thinking that the race to be their next president resembles a police lineup more than a contest to see which distinguished public servant wins the first round vote on April 10.
Frontrunner Keiko Fujimori is campaigning on the controversial hard-right populist legacy of her disgraced father Alberto Fujimori. Now in jail, he was president from 1990 to 2000 and was once ranked sixth on anti-graft group Transparency International's all-time list of crooked politicians, based on the $6 billion dollars that vanished from state coffers on his watch.
Her main challengers, competing for the second place finish that would see them face off with her in the June 5 runoff, include César Acuña, a former regional governor who has made millions from his empire of private universities. However, the educator is now accused of serial flagrant plagiarism — including ripping off his doctoral thesis on educational policy, and publishing another professor's entire book under his name.
Then there is Alan García, a two-time former president now popularly known as the "candidate of the narcos." His first government ushered in hyperinflation while his second administration was overshadowed by the Bagua massacre of indigenous protesters and police. Above all, he is pursued by a scandal involving his aids selling presidential pardons to hundreds of jailed drug traffickers.
'They are pathetically weak, inept, and unpopular'
Meanwhile, Daniel Urresti, the candidate of the Nationalist Party of outgoing President Ollanta Humala, is currently on trial for allegedly ordering the murder of a journalist when he was an intelligence officer at a remote army outpost during the internal conflict with the Shining Path in the 1980s.
Amazingly, Humala even appointed the former general as his interior minister in July 2014 when it was known that he was already under criminal investigation.
Those kind of errors in judgment by Humala, also a leftist former army officer, and the watering down of his agenda once in office — especially his promise to crack down on corruption — have seen the current president's approval ratings dip almost into single digits.
Frustration with their current lame duck president and the fundamental flaws in her main rivals, appear to have opened the door for Keiko, who is around 20 points clear of her nearest competitors.
"They [her main challengers] are pathetically weak, inept, and unpopular," Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist who writes a column in one of Peru's leading newspapers, told VICE News.
Around 70 percent of Peruvians say they are unsatisfied with the candidates on offer, a recurrent theme in politics here that fuels a tradition of volatile elections, with dissatisfied voters often making up their minds at the last minute.
To make matters worse, voting is compulsory and alcohol sales are banned during the weekend of the election, in a country where many may feel a stiff drink is necessary before taking an unpalatable decision in the polling booth.
Here is VICE News' guide to the leading contenders.
Keiko Fujimori. Photo by Paolo Aguilar/EPA
"I offer you a strong, drastic, and implacable government, marked by transparency. I know how to look at history and I will not allow it to repeat itself," Keiko Fujimori said during an anti-corruption forum last month. "I have suffered and carried a large backpack full of the mistakes of third parties and other people, and I will never allow my daughters to carry this backpack that I have carried for so many years."
Keiko — in Peru she is invariably referred to by her first name — has been consistently polling between 30 percent and 35 percent for months, putting her far ahead of her nearest rivals in the splintered field of 19 candidates.
That is because, despite his abuses, a solid minority of Peruvians remember her disgraced father fondly, crediting him with taming the economic meltdown inherited from García in 1990 and crushing the Shining Path terrorists, whose violent Maoist nihilism once bathed the country in blood.
Fujimori senior, who is widely suspected of managing his 40-year-old daughter's presidential bid from his jail cell, is now serving a 25-year sentence for embezzlement, directing death squads, and systematically bribing journalists to smear his opponents.
'I have suffered and carried a large backpack full of the mistakes of third parties and other people'
Despite her relative youth, Keiko has a long track record in politics, starting with becoming her father's first lady in 1994 when she was just 19. That promotion came following her parents' bitter divorce, with her mother Susana Higuchi subsequently testifying to congress that the president had had her tortured. Keiko publicly took her father's side.
Controversy has never been far away since. Keiko has yet to fully explain how Alberto Fujimori funded her BA at Boston University, which she is reported to have paid for in cash, on his relatively meagre presidential salary.
She has also defended her father's autocratic administration, claiming that it was "attacked" by corruption. She now acknowledges that he made "errors," including the forced sterilizations of thousands of poor, largely indigenous women.
A disciplined candidate, she sticks rigidly to her talking points and, as a runaway favorite, has been playing it safe by not giving media interviews.
The biggest question she has managed to avoid is whether she will pardon her father. Other questions needing an answer include her mysterious campaign finances and the never-ending stream of corruption investigations against Fujimorista congressmen and candidates.
César Acuña. Photo by Vidal Tarqui/EPA
"Those who know me closely, know that I don't read and that I never write," César Acuña said while inaugurating a book fair in the city of Trujillo in March 2013. "I took the time last night to review some texts in order to explain what a book fair is."
The former governor of the northern coastal region of La Libertad, Acuña, 63, is a self-made millionaire who owns three lucrative private universities, which critics accuse of churning out poorly qualified graduates.
Until this month, he appeared poised to offer a strong challenge to Keiko, competing for the same, largely poor, voters, albeit on a center left agenda. He polled as high as 14 percent.
Then came the plagiarism allegations that are doubly serious for someone whose business empire and campaign platform is based around education. He also faces having his candidacy ruled out by Peru's electoral authorities for misrepresenting his resume.
The allegations appear overwhelming. Acuña is not only accused of ripping off the dissertation for his PHD from Madrid's Complutense University, but of doing the same for his MA thesis. It also appears that a book he published under his own name in 2002 — Educational Policy: Concepts, Reflections and Proposals — was apparently written in its entirety by one of his professors.
'Those who know me closely, know that I don't read and that I never write'
The candidate has offered various explanations, including that he merely omitted to refer to the borrowed texts in his thesis bibliography, and that he co-authored the book with his teacher.
Controversy is hardly new for Acuña. As a city mayor he faced allegations of buying votes. In December it emerged that he fathered a child with one of his 16-year-old students when he was 33.
Eduardo Dargent, a politics professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, the country's top school, says: "Keiko's main rivals have been attempting to position themselves as the lesser evil. That alone tells you everything. Acuña's biggest problem now is that he can probably no longer do that."
President Ollanta Humala and Daniel Urresti. Photo by Enrique Castro/Reuters
"At this time, I am dedicated to working. What the citizens want is not more plans or meetings, but to see the police working in the streets," Daniel Urresti said in response to the news in July 2014 that he was to be put on trial for allegedly ordering the murder of a journalist. "That is what I am doing. I speak with results and I present them daily."
The former army general was a bombastic interior minister under President Humala, where his populist habit of personally leading police raids, sometimes several times a day, saw his ratings soar while policy analysts shook their heads in horror.
Incredibly, the 59-year-old is now campaigning as Humala's anointed successor while on trial for orchestrating the murder of a journalist, who was about to report on army abuses, during the 1980s conflict with the Shining Path.
'What the citizens want is not more plans or meetings, but to see the police working in the streets'
A prolific tweeter, he regularly lambasts García and Keiko, in ways that critics regard as unstatesmanlike. He has yet to poll more than 2 percent.
Alan García. Photo by Ernesto Arias/EPA
"Don't be stupid. The money arrives on its own," Alan García allegedly said in private to a TV interviewer who asked how he made ends meet on Peru's modest presidential salary.
At a rotund 6ft 5in, the two-times president is a genuine heavyweight in all senses, down to the ego.
Few in Peru doubt his oratorical skills or ability to out-campaign his rivals. He also has the nearest thing in Peru to a grassroots party organization in APRA. The populist left-wing grouping dates from the 1930s, although it has arguably lost ideological coherence since García's rightward shift during his second term between 2006 and 2011.
This time around, however, he appears to be yesterday's man, unable to rise much above 5 percent in the polls despite being the country's best-known politician by far.
'Don't be stupid. The money arrives on its own'
His first leftist presidency, from 1985 to 1990, ended in national catastrophe, with one of the worst cases of hyperinflation in global history and the Shining Path all but besieging Lima.
That he won a second term is a testament to his political acumen, and the fear many Peruvians felt of his main rival, Humala, who was campaigning as a disciple of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.
García's second presidency saw strong economic growth but numerous controversies, including the "narco-pardons" scandal, in which jailed drug-traffickers bought presidential pardons from his aides.
He has also subsequently been linked to Gerald Oropeza, one of Peru's most high profile drug lords. In a leaked audio of an alleged cell phone call from the jail where he awaits trial on cocaine trafficking charges, Oropeza is heard saying he expects "uncle Alan" will save him.
Alejandro Toledo. Photo by Paolo Aguilar/EPA
"I told Mark Zuckerberg, 'If you do so much science, why can't you decode the Nazca lines?'" Alejandro Tolero said during a business conference in December 2015.
A centrist president from 2001 to 2006, Toledo, 69, is the son of a bricklayer and fishmonger, who earned an economics PHD from Stanford, where he still teaches.
'I told Mark Zuckerberg, 'If you do so much science, why can't you decode the Nazca lines?'
His presidency saw strong economic growth but was marred by incessant verbal gaffes, allegations of heavy drinking, nepotism, and graft. Above all, he has suffered from the widespread perception that he squandered his five years in office, failing to implement major reforms or tackle corruption.
He now faces an ongoing money laundering investigation into a mysterious property purchase by his aging mother-in-law. He is polling around 3 percent.
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Verónika Mendoza. Photo via Facebook
"We have a female presidential candidate who didn't think twice about studying with the proceeds of corruption, who has various members of congress investigated for corruption, one very recently convicted of illicit enrichment," said Verónika Mendoza, taking a stab at Keiko Fujimori during an anti-corruption conference in January.
The 35-year-old congresswoman from the highland city of Cusco appears to be the long-fractured Peruvian left's only possible chance at these elections. She nevertheless remains a long shot and has yet to fully emerge from pollsters' "others" category.
'We have a female presidential candidate who didn't think twice about studying with the proceeds of corruption'
Sharp and telegenic, she has been quick to criticize other candidates' perceived corruption and willingness to auction off Peru's natural resources. Nevertheless, many feel she is still too young to be president, and she has alienated some potential supporters in urban areas by failing to answer clearly if Venezuela was a democracy or a dictatorship.
Pedro Pablo Kuczynski
Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Photo by Raul García/EPA
"In the face of so many acts of corruption and so much dirt, we Peruvians should opt for a president who isn't a conman or a liar," Pedro Pablo Kuczynski said on the campaign trail in January.
The son of a German Jewish epidemiologist who fled the Nazis in 1936 to work in the Peruvian Amazon, the Oxford-educated PPK, as he is known in Peru, is a devout free market capitalist. He is often regarded as the only candidate with a realistic chance who is not obviously a scoundrel.
'...we Peruvians should opt for a president who isn't a conman or a liar'
The biggest weakness of the former prime minister, who served in 2005-2006 under Toledo, is the perception that his priority is the transnational mining and oil companies on whose behalf the 77-year-old has acted as a lobbyist.
He has also been heavily criticized for failing to fulfill a promise made during his 2011 presidential bid to give up his dual US citizenship.
Julio Guzmán. Photo by Todos por Perú Press/EPA
"I rather think he is Coca Cola and I am Inca Kola," Julio Guzmán said in a nationalist dig at PKK's dual nationality during the campaign when accused of being a less successful copy.
Guzmán, 45, is a former professor of public policy at Georgetown and Maryland Universities and also had a brief stint as cabinet secretary for President Humala.
A centrist wonk who has been wrong footed in TV interviews, he has emerged recently as the proverbial outsider that fed up voters here periodically latch on to.
'I rather think he is Coca Cola and I am Inca Kola'
He has been contesting second spot with Acuña and PPK, polling around 10 percent.
Nevertheless, he appears to be competing in the same demographic as PPK, potentially splitting an important voting bloc.
His biggest problem could be alleged failures in the way he obtained his party's nomination. The electoral authorities here are to rule in the next few days on whether to ban his candidacy.
Follow Simeon Tegel on Twitter: @SimeonTegel
Topics: americas, perú, alan gracía, keiko fujimori, alberto fujimori, daniel urresti, ollanta humala, steven levitsky, shining path, verónika mendoza, susana higuchi, césar acuña, city of trujillo, madrid’s complutense university, pontifical catholic university of peru, eduardo dargent, hugo chávez, venezuela, gerald oropeza, nazca lines, stanford, cusco, peruvian amazon