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Ex-Army Commander Takes Lead in Peru's Close Presidential Race

Ollanta Humala is met by protesters at his polling place. He and two rivals are locked in a tight battle to qualify for an expected runoff.

April 10, 2006|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

LIMA, Peru — An ex-Army officer whose populist rhetoric and kinship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez worry the Bush administration held a slim lead in the presidential race Sunday, but will probably face a runoff, according to early returns.

Ollanta Humala, 43, a political neophyte facing allegations of human rights abuses from his time as an army commander during Peru's 1990s guerrilla conflict, received about 27.3% of the vote with just less than half of the votes counted, election officials said. He needed a majority to avoid a runoff in late May or early June.

Trailing by less than a percentage point was Lourdes Flores, a conservative lawyer seeking to become Peru's first female president. Former President Alan Garcia trailed her by less than half a percentage point, at 26.1%, according to the partial results.

Raucous middle-class protesters swamped Humala's polling place, calling him a would-be dictator likely to scare off investors and lead the country into economic ruin.

"Humala will bring our country back to the days of dictatorship and chaos," said Laura Ugarte, a 42-year-old widowed mother of three and a real estate agent who joined in the antiHumala verbal fusillade.

Humala was unable to leave the voting site until riot police with plexiglass shields and helmets arrived to escort him and his wife to safety.

The tumultuous election day scene underscored the polarization of South America's fourth most populous nation as citizens voted for a new president and 120-member Congress.

Humala has positioned himself as a populist defender of Peru's vast underclass, but has alienated many middle-class and wealthy Peruvians.

The balloting, in which as many as 16 million Peruvians were expected to participate, unfolded without major incidents other than the protest against Humala.

Arriving at their polling place at a university campus in an upscale Lima district, Humala and his wife, Nadine Heredia, were greeted by hostile crowds yelling, "Asesino! Asesino!" ("Murderer! Murderer!"), among other epithets, and tossing paper and other trash at the ex-army man.

The shouts were references to much-publicized allegations that Humala was responsible for the disappearances of suspects and other abuses during an anti-guerrilla campaign. Humala has denied any wrongdoing.

Many of the protesters were middle-class women voting at the same polling site, and their anger only escalated as Humala and his wife -- in the midst of a phalanx of journalists and beefy security men -- stepped inside a classroom to vote. The candidate's detractors blocked the exit, and Humala was trapped inside as the chants continued.

"Humala is Chavez!" the dissidents yelled, comparing the candidate to Venezuela's anti-U.S. president, also an ex-army officer, who has embraced Humala's candidacy.

Afterward, an enraged Humala blamed the political parties of the two other major candidates for the disturbance, charging that "an intolerance to the diversity of ideas" was behind the fracas.

"Democracy is kidnapped," Humala told reporters. "It is in the hands of a minority that doesn't want to lose its privileges and acts with violence against the possibility that the people can regain their dignity."

Spokesmen for the other leading candidates denied having any part in the disturbance and called Humala's remarks intemperate and incendiary.

The anti-Humala activists insisted their actions were a spontaneous outpouring.

"We reject Humala for our children's sake," said Carla de Ortiz, a hairdresser who joined in the heckling along with her son, Luis Ortiz, 20, a university student. "He will take the country down a path to ruin."

But Humala has strong support among the urban and rural poor who have been left behind even as Peru has enjoyed five years of growth under President Alejandro Toledo, a free-market champion and favorite of the Bush administration.

"The rich keep getting richer, while we are always poorer, and he is the only one willing to do anything about it," said Mario Paz, 43, a father of three and former policeman who said he voted for Humala. "He will get rid of the corrupt ones."

Enrique Torres, a 33-year-old laborer and Humala supporter said, "We need a strong hand to do away with corruption and lift our country up again."

Humala has pledged to raise taxes on foreign companies and rewrite Peru's Constitution in an effort, he says, to help the impoverished masses while stripping privileges from a corrupt political class.

He is an open admirer of the 1968-75 leftist dictatorship of Gen. Juan Velasco, who implemented media controls and an agrarian reform program most experts now call a failure.

Flores, 46, a conservative former congresswoman and devout Catholic, is the favored candidate of investors and the Peruvian upper classes. The charismatic Garcia, 56, whose presidency from 1985 to 1990 left the country in economic and political turmoil, has said he has learned from past mistakes. Polls show he appeals to young voters who don't recall his time as president.

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

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