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Opposites Attracting Voters in Peru's Race

Lourdes Flores, seen as the candidate of the elite, talks up free trade. Ollanta Humala, billed as a populist, is wary of the United States.

April 02, 2006|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

LIMA, Peru — She is a conservative lawmaker vying to become Peru's first female president.

He is an ex-army officer whose fiery nationalist rhetoric and kinship with leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have set off alarms in Washington.

She calls a prospective free trade accord with the United States "a magnificent opportunity"; he is wary and regularly lambastes what he calls greedy transnational firms' devouring of the national bounty.

She is perceived as the candidate of the capital's elite; he is the self-styled representative of the country's disenfranchised, frequently compared to Evo Morales, Bolivia's new president and a socialist firebrand who has taken up the cause of the Indian underclass.

This nation of 28 million will go to the polls April 9 to elect a new president and national legislature. The current chief executive, Alejandro Toledo, a Bush administration favorite whose five-year term has been dogged by scandal and unfulfilled expectations, is prohibited by law from seeking a consecutive term.

The characteristically rough-and-tumble campaign involving almost two dozen declared presidential contestants has yielded two very different front-runners:

Lourdes Flores, 46, a longtime congresswoman who ran unsuccessfully for president five years ago, is the preferred candidate of the establishment. The center-right lawyer could become South America's second sitting female president, after Chile's Michelle Bachelet, a socialist who took office March 11.

Ollanta Humala, who retired from the military after more than two decades in uniform, has wooed the battered urban multitudes and Andean peasants in a country where more than half the population remains mired in poverty despite robust economic growth in recent years. Humala, 42, has never held elective office and is campaigning as a voice of change, an enigmatic outsider pledging to renegotiate multinational contracts, enforce state control of the lucrative mining and gas sectors and eject the "corrupt ones" from power.

U.S. officials, though not commenting publicly on the election, are privately worried that a Humala victory would give Venezuela's Chavez a major new ally for his blame-Washington-first agenda.

Despite his upper-middle-class upbringing, early education in a Japanese-Peruvian school and cozy postings as a military attache in Paris and Seoul, Humala has consistently played the populist card, portraying himself as a humble soldier fighting for the little man and eager to impose military-style order on Peru's untidy political culture.

"We need a country where four or five families don't decide the nation's destiny," he told an enthusiastic crowd recently in a working-class area of southern Lima, the capital. "We must impose discipline, we must bring order to the country."

Although Flores has pledged to maintain the pro-business policies favored by the outgoing Toledo administration, she has adopted an almost socialist line in her speeches in an effort to broaden her base, pledging to reform public healthcare and education, two major preoccupations of Peruvians.

When asked during a recent interview in her campaign SUV whether she was a surrogate for Peru's small elite, she snapped: "That is not true.

"We have to recognize that economic growth must also incorporate the most marginalized sectors."

Polls here have shown the two chief candidates alternating in the top spot, though many voters remain undecided. The most recent surveys have found Humala surging into the lead, with about one-third of the prospective vote. Flores, whose support has been slipping, now trails him by about 4 percentage points, according to a recent Apoyo poll.

Most experts agree that no candidate is likely to receive 50% of the vote, which would mean a runoff of the two top vote-getters in May.

Both front-runners have been frequently forced on the defensive.

Humala has faced difficult questions about the dubious records of other candidates on his ticket and widely publicized allegations of human rights abuses while he was an army officer known as "Capitan Carlos" in the Peruvian tropics during the 1990s "dirty war" against leftist guerrillas. Widespread uncertainty about what Humala represents, and his campaign's image of disarray, have raised doubts among investors and others in a nation where democracy and stability are widely viewed as delicate.

"In a country like Peru, with such fragile and weak institutions, a lack of control is immediately associated with chaos," said Santiago Pedraglio, a sociologist and independent political analyst.

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