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Populist ex-army officer leads in Peru election

Ollanta Humala, seen by some as too close to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, appears set to win the presidential election, but may not gain the majority needed to avoid a runoff in June.

April 11, 2011|By Adriana Leon and Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times
  • Presidential candidate Ollanta Humala, accompanied by his wife Nadine Heredia, speaks to supporters in Lima after early results show him in the lead.
Presidential candidate Ollanta Humala, accompanied by his wife Nadine… (Pilar Olivares, Reuters )

Reporting from Lima and Los Angeles — After surging in the polls in the campaign's final weeks, retired army officer and populist Ollanta Humala appeared to lead Peru's presidential race Sunday but was likely to face a runoff in June.

With about 43% of the votes counted Sunday night, Peru's electoral commission and unofficial tallies put Humala ahead of his closest competitors, Keiko Fujimori, a former congresswoman and daughter of imprisoned former President Alberto Fujimori, and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a former economy and finance minister. Former President Alejandro Toledo appeared well behind the other candidates. Unless a candidate is able to win more than 50% of the votes, the top two finishers will face each other in a runoff election June 5.

Complete electoral commission results were expected Monday. The early tallies showed a close race for second place between Fujimori and Kuczynski.

Humala, 47, a former army officer, founder of the populist Nationalist Party, and friend of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, was the surprise of the campaign. His success has been tied to the sentiment among many Peruvians that the country's impressive economic growth in recent years has not sufficiently filtered down to the poor.

He has promised to raise the minimum wage by 20%, force mining companies to pay more taxes, and make credit more available to the poor.

He also promised to cut natural gas exports to ensure low-cost energy for Peruvians.

"Humala will change the current economic model. He wouldn't govern just for the rich. With him in office, Peru will have less inequality," graphic designer and Humala supporter Judith Aragon Linares, 30, said after voting in Lima, the capital.

"I decided to give his plan a chance," said Desiree Chumbe de Aguila, a 19-year-old student. "I had strong objections to the other candidates and so I was left with him."

Humala also won the first round of the 2006 presidential election but lost in a runoff to President Alan Garcia, who won 53% of the votes to Humala's 47%. He lost partly because of fears among some voters that he would take Peru down the same socialist path as Chavez in Venezuela.

In 2006, Humala had flaunted his friendship with Chavez and worn red shirts at campaign events to emulate the Venezuelan socialist.

But he struck a far different tone this year, appearing in sober gray and dark blue suits and ties.

"Peru has changed and so have I," Humala said at a recent campaign stop.

He has denied receiving campaign aid from Chavez, and after the Venezuelan leader earlier described him as a "good soldier," Humala said Chavez should stay out of the campaign. "I don't need him to tell me that I am a good soldier or not."

But markets in Peru are nervous about the prospect of Humala as president, fearing he may impose socialist policies similar to those of Chavez.

As Humala's poll numbers rose in the final weeks of the campaign, Peruvian bond prices fell and the nation's currency lost value even as other Latin American currencies rose against the dollar.

Humala's use of Brazilian campaign advisors associated with President Dilma Rousseff's leftist Workers' Party also created some controversy in the final weeks. They advised him to use the campaign slogan, "Honesty makes a difference."

According to the blog of one of the advisors, Luis Favre, the team advised him to de-emphasize the populism of the previous campaign while advertising the candidate's honesty, a play toward the electorate's dissatisfaction with old-style politics.

As an army officer, Humala once led counterinsurgency maneuvers against Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, rebels.

Fujimori, 35, has backtracked on her previous promise to pardon her father if she is elected. Alberto Fujimori is serving a prison sentence on human rights abuses that left 25 dead in the 1990s.

"I voted for Keiko because she appeals to me as a woman, wife, mother and professional," said Lima homemaker Maria Luisa Godoy. "It's the best option for those of us who supported her father, who defeated terrorism and raised the nation's economy."

Special correspondents Leon reported from Lima and Kraul from Los Angeles.

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