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In Democratically Brittle Peru, Fear Turns Up on the Ballot

April 09, 2006|Patrick J. McDonnell | Los Angeles Times

LIMA, Peru — Peruvians cast ballots today to elect a president and national legislature amid deep uncertainty and even fear about who will prevail among three very distinct candidates: An ex-army officer with a questionable human rights record; a former president whose administration left the country in a shambles; and a female lawyer widely viewed as an instrument of the elite.

The boisterous campaign has proceeded with plenty of name-calling and mudslinging but no major violence. Still, deep anxiety about the future is evident in a democratically brittle nation that may be poised to embark on a radical new course.

"There is a very strong war of fears being waged," Luis Benavente, director of the polling arm of Lima University, told reporters here last week. "Fear was a factor that came to the forefront in this campaign."

Many seem intent on casting their ballots against a candidate they fear rather than for one they passionately support. Some worry, for instance, that the election could lead to instability or a military government.

"Most voters have little enthusiasm, few convictions and are far from euphoric" about their choices, said Jorge Bruce, a political analyst here.

The three front-runners are Ollanta Humala, the former army man; Alan Garcia, one-time darling of the Latin American left whose 1985-90 presidency ended with hyperinflation and a guerrilla war; and Lourdes Flores, a center-right lawyer and former congresswoman vying to become the nation's first female president.

Outgoing President Alejandro Toledo has followed an aggressive free market, pro-Washington agenda that failed to keep its promise of significantly reducing poverty -- even as the economy grew briskly. Resentment against the free market model and disgust with traditional politics are fueling the "outsider" campaign of Humala, giving him an edge, experts say.

Nonetheless, polls suggest that none of the three is likely to garner the 50% needed for outright victory. The top two finishers would meet in a runoff next month. One recent poll placed the three in a virtual dead heat, each with slightly more than a quarter of the vote. More than a dozen minor candidates split the rest.

But surveys indicate that the surest bet to pass to the second round is Humala, 43, a fervid nationalist who has never held elected office. He led a populist, capitalist-bashing campaign that worries investors and Washington. The ascension of the retired lieutenant colonel would bring to office another ally of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, an adversary of the Bush administration, and would continue the continent's leftward drift.

"We don't have fear of Humala," said Felix Antonio, a taxi driver and Humala supporter. "We have fear of the corrupt ones who always govern Peru."

Working in Humala's favor, observers say, is that the polls have probably undercounted the poor -- a political base for the former officer.

Humala has publicly distanced himself from the radical ethno-nationalism of his father, Isaac Humala, who espoused a belief in the primacy of Peru's "copper colored" masses at the expense of the nation's light-skinned elite, largely of European origin.

Humala has been dogged by allegations of abuses committed when he was a captain at a jungle base during a 1990s battle against leftist guerrillas. He has denied any wrongdoing in the alleged disappearance of suspected guerrilla sympathizers, and said he was committed to democracy.

The fiercest part of the presidential race may be for second place and a shot at the runoff, with two seasoned politicians -- Flores and Garcia -- seen as competing for a single slot.

Garcia, 56, has made steady gains in the polls despite the fact that his presidency left the country on the brink of collapse: broke and with rampant guerrilla violence. Garcia also has a reputation for acting erratically. He was filmed kicking a bystander during a public appearance two years ago.

But Garcia, a gifted orator, says he has matured into a center-left moderate. He also has the advantage of running under the banner of the country's best-organized political group, the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance, one of Latin America's oldest parties. His allies are expected to mount a strong get-out-the vote effort.

Flores has traveled to shantytowns and mountain hamlets in an effort to discard her image as the candidate of the elite, the majority of which live in Lima. But polls suggest that Flores has had difficulty transcending her privileged base and connecting with the masses.

"We are in the midst of great uncertainty," said Soledad Latorre, 50, a shop owner in the capital. She said she planned to vote for Flores, though she added, "I really don't think any of the top three candidates represent me.... We Peruvians are tired of fighting among ourselves."

*

Andres D'Alessandro of The Times' Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.

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