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3 in Close Race for Peru Presidency

April 08, 2001|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LIMA, Peru — The leading candidates in today's presidential election symbolize the hopes of disenfranchised Peruvians who, after centuries of repressive and unjust governments, make up the vast majority of the population.

But the sometimes nasty tone and dubious content of the campaign suggest that the Peruvian political class hasn't learned the lessons of the past.

Front-runner Alejandro Toledo, a center-left economist, aspires to become Peru's first president of indigenous descent. His top challenger, former Congresswoman Lourdes Flores, represents the increasing clout of women in a traditionally male-dominated society.

Along with fast-rising underdog Alan Garcia, a former president, the candidates promise to rebuild political institutions and an economy left in ruins by the fall of President Alberto Fujimori last year. Nonetheless, the electoral debate has often recalled the fractious, messy politics that brought Fujimori, a populist anti-politician, to power 11 years ago.

Reflecting disenchantment with a campaign dominated by insults and personal attacks, polls estimate the number of undecided voters at about 17%. Most analysts predict that no candidate will get more than half the vote, an outcome that would require a runoff election next month between the top two.

"There is no landslide candidate," pollster Giovanna Penaflor said. "It seems that we have forgotten that this is not just another election. It's a very important election in a process of democratic transition that is by no means complete. There's a certain disillusionment among people. They ask why is it that we don't have a leader who is above these petty things."

Toledo's campaign helps explain the doubts of some voters and the high hopes of others. He established himself as a leader last year when he withstood an onslaught of dirty tricks and forced Fujimori into a runoff election, then headed nationwide protests that helped topple the regime in November.

Toledo's odyssey from the poverty of an Andean village to Stanford, Harvard and the World Bank is irresistibly inspirational. He draws impressive crowds with his evocation of Inca symbols and his pride in being a cholo--a Peruvian of mixed race.

Backed by many veterans of the anti-Fujimori opposition, Toledo, 55, offers a message focused on unemployment, aid to peasant farmers and other pocketbook issues.

Despite disgust with massive corruption, the most urgent concerns here are economic. Almost half the population lives below the poverty line; the Fujimori regime squandered hundreds of millions of dollars earned from privatization of state enterprises and spent about $1 billion on the military.

Unfortunately for the Toledo camp, Clintonian questions about his character have hurt his chances for a first-round victory.

Toledo has been hit by allegations that he fathered a child outside of marriage and had tested positive for cocaine. The latter accusation arose from a murky episode three years ago--documented by the respected Caretas magazine--in which Toledo allegedly spent a drug- and liquor-addled day with three women in hotels known for prostitution, then reported the incident as a kidnapping.

The average Peruvian doesn't seem concerned about Toledo's personal life. But his reluctant response to the scandals has damaged him, according to polls. Toledo declined to take a DNA test in the paternity case unless ordered by a court. And he claims that the cocaine test was positive because he was kidnapped and drugged by Fujimori spies on two occasions.

Flores, meanwhile, has had problems of her own since February, when her surge in the polls seemed unstoppable.

Like Toledo, Flores has a quixotic appeal. For years, the unmarried, devoutly Roman Catholic 41-year-old has impressed voters and colleagues as smart, honest and courageous. Unlike women in the region who inherited power from their husbands--Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in Nicaragua, Eva Peron in Argentina--Flores is self-made.

"I think that if I win in these elections, there will be a new feminist wave in Latin America," Flores said in published comments last week. "We will bring freshness and renovation to Latin American politics."

Flores' candidacy is a sign of the high profile of women in politics here. The trend grew partly out of the keen political instincts of Fujimori. In the early 1990s, he noted with alarm the prominence of women in the Sendero Luminoso terrorist movement; he also saw that his ugly divorce had alienated women.

So Fujimori declared himself a feminist. He created a Ministry for Women's Affairs. He passed a law mandating that 25% of electoral candidates be women. During his final years in office, women held the top three posts in Congress.

"This is a machista society," pollster Penaflor said. "Women have the worst rates of illiteracy. There is domestic violence. But women assume roles of leadership in community groups, neighborhood soup kitchens, a variety of areas. In politics, they are seen as more honest."

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