By Mitra Taj
LIMA (Reuters) - The Fujimori clan is at it again.
Nearly two decades since Alberto Fujimori and his family occupied Peru's presidential palace and gripped the Andean nation's attention during one of its most turbulent chapters, they are once more at the center of political upheaval.
Now an ailing and grey-haired 79-year-old, Fujimori became a free man on Christmas Eve thanks to a pardon from President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, clearing him of graft and rights convictions less than halfway into a 25-year jail sentence.
The decision, stunning Peruvians as they sat readied their holiday feasts, triggered clashes between police and protesters and could reshape Peruvian politics for years.
Fujimori had unsuccessfully sought a pardon from two previous presidents, but secured one from Kuczynski after benefiting from a political rivalry between two of his children, Keiko and Kenji.
The siblings lead separate factions of the rightwing party, Popular Force, which grew out of the populist movement their father founded in the 1990s and now controls Congress.
Last week, Kuczynski was nearly removed from office by loyalists to Keiko in the wake of a graft scandal, Kenji and nine of his followers saved the president with abstention votes.
Kuczynski denies the pardon was part of a pact, and Fujimori's supporters hail it as an overdue humanitarian gesture due to health problems they say put the former president's life at risk.
Yet what is undisputed is the central role that the Fujimoris, descendants of the Japanese diaspora, continue to play in Peruvian politics - long after Alberto's authoritarian government imploded in a graft scandal in 2000.
"The Fujimori dynasty will be with us for a while still," said Fernando Tuesta, a political scientist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.
The family saga was a reminder of the enduring support authoritarian movements often enjoy long after they fall, especially when subsequent democratic leaders - bound by institutional limits - disappoint, Tuesta said.
Since first riding onto Peru's political scene on a tractor in Peru's 1990 election, Fujimori has been admired by many in Peru's poorer provinces, where he had schools and roads built and wielded an iron fist against leftist Maoist rebels.
KENJI AND KEIKO
Kenji, 37, was widely seen as having presidential ambitions after Keiko's two failed bids to reach Peru's highest office and may launch a bid in the 2021 race.
Once best known as the boy Fujimori publicly doted on during his decade in power, Kenji has since turned his carefree juvenile image into an asset that contrasts with the 42-year-old Keiko's more composed persona.
Miguel Campoblanco, Kenji's friend in school, recalled parties with classmates at the presidential palace and the occasional military helicopter ride to the jungle.
"He always looked up to his father. I remember in sixth grade he used to say, 'I'm going to be president like my dad,'" said Campoblanco.
After his father, Kenji may emerge as the biggest winner from the pardon. Having long led calls for his father's release, he has seized the spotlight in events surrounding the pardon.
On Saturday, Kenji rode in the passenger seat of an ambulance chased by news cameras as it rushed Fujimori to the hospital, and later shared a video that showed the father-and-son duo celebrating news of the pardon.
"He's the good son," said political analyst Ivan Lanegra. "But his political career thus far had one goal: his father's freedom."
The siblings might reconcile now that their father is free and it becomes politically convenient, added Lanegra.
Keiko has spent the past decade turning her father's populist following into the country's most powerful political party. At 19, Keiko became Peru's first lady after their parents' acrimonious divorce.
The secretary general of Keiko's party, Jose Chlimper - a former minister in her father's government - said she was paying the price for keeping a campaign promise to not seek her father's freedom through politics.
"Keiko doesn't lie," said Chlimper, betting she would eventually come out stronger for it. "I worked with ex-President Fujimori. And I wonder if he's going to be happy leaving his unjust imprisonment in this way."
(Reporting By Mitra Taj; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Susan Thomas)