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Many ghosts haunt Peru's presidential election

Right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori faces suspicions that she will bring back the corruption and abuses seen in her father's government, while leftist Ollanta Humala conjures fears of a Chavez-style socialist regime. Either, some say, could be a setback to Peru's fragile democracy.

June 04, 2011|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
  • Ollanta Humala campaigns in the Peruvian capital, Lima. He has worked hard to dispel fears and portray himself as a moderate.
Ollanta Humala campaigns in the Peruvian capital, Lima. He has worked hard… (Paolo Aguilar, EPA )

Reporting from Lima, Peru — Phantasms stalk Peru's presidential runoff election.

There's the ghost of Hugo Chavez, the radical Venezuelan president who haunts Peruvians who are fearful that he is the model that candidate Ollanta Humala plans to follow.

There's the ghost of Alberto Fujimori, the jailed, disgraced former president whose daughter, Keiko, is the other candidate. Many fear she's just a proxy for him.

There are ghosts from a war that killed 70,000 people and from a virtual dictatorship that eviscerated many of Peru's democratic institutions.

Peru, with a population of 29 million, has registered one of the highest rates of economic growth in Latin America for more than a decade, thanks in large part to foreign investment and high prices for metals and other commodities. The Andean nation, a loyal ally of the U.S., also has slowly built back some of its political system. But Sunday's vote represents a direct challenge to that progress.

Most Peruvians speak of voting for the lesser of two evils, the mal menor.

"This is a very fragile, volatile vote because a lot of people are voting against, not for," said pollster Giovanna Penaflor. The result, she added, "are governments that have little legitimacy and a country without political stability."

Keiko Fujimori and Humala are both populists prone to help-the-poor rhetoric, but represent opposite ends of the political spectrum. The right-wing Fujimori is favored by Peru's business establishment and most of the conservative, mainstream press; Humala, a former army colonel, is a leftist nationalist who speaks more explicitly of addressing income inequality and redistributing Peru's considerable wealth.

Three centrist candidates shared nearly half the vote in the presidential election in April but ended up knocking each other out and allowing the two polarizing contestants to advance to the runoff.

"Regardless of who wins, you will have a high percentage of people very resentful, with a large sheath of ideological arrows," said Mirko Lauer, a writer and political analyst. "Both candidates have a strong authoritarian slant" that could emerge at the first sign of popular unrest, he added.

Fujimori, a lawmaker who recently turned 36, has struggled to distance herself from the worst abuses of her father's regime. Alberto Fujimori ruled from 1990 until he was ousted in 2000 amid a staggering corruption scandal. He is credited with helping to slow hyperinflation and ending the Shining Path Maoist insurgency that fought successive governments for years. But he was accused of authorizing severe human rights abuses, including the killing of civilians and persecution of opponents, and of stealing billions of dollars. A court convicted him in 2009 of ordering killings by death squads and sentenced him to 25 years in prison.

The younger Fujimori became first lady in 1994, after her parents divorced. (Her mother, Susana Higuchi, accused her ex-husband of having her detained and tortured.)

Keiko Fujimori has surrounded herself with many of her father's closest aides. They include Alejandro Aguinaga, who was in charge of the Health Ministry under Alberto Fujimori when an estimated 300,000 impoverished women were forcibly sterilized in Peru's highlands.

Her opponents claim that her election campaign is being run by her father from his jail cell, where by all accounts he has been given enormous privileges and unusual comforts. Many Peruvians are convinced that one of her first acts if elected will be to pardon her father. Although Keiko Fujimori says she regrets the abuses of his regime, she continues to praise him as Peru's best president.

Humala, 48, has also had to work to put down specters of his recent past. When he ran for president in 2006 he advocated radical social and economic change and expressed enthusiastic admiration for Chavez. He was also said to have accepted large amounts of money from the Venezuelan leader. This time around, thanks to his own sense of pragmatism and a host of Brazilian advisers, Humala has projected a more moderate political persona.

But his enemies are worried that he would derail the relatively unfettered market-based policies that have fueled Peru's economic growth, possibly by nationalizing mines and expropriating land from the wealthy, like Chavez has done — and not unlike Peru's military regimes in the 1970s.

Humala says he's all for growth but advocates a more equitable distribution of the wealth that has failed to trickle down to the 30% or so of Peruvians still living in poverty. As an example of the potential for an explosion of discontent among the disenfranchised, he cited violent strikes in recent weeks by indigenous Aymara activists in the southern mining center of Puno, where residents accuse big mining companies of polluting the water.

"I don't want to set back growth, but there must also be a social policy that reaches more Peruvians," Humala told a group of foreign correspondents Friday.

At the same meeting, he also accused the government of President Alan Garcia of working on behalf of Fujimori, including ordering state intelligence services to spy on Humala's campaign.

The two candidates formally wrapped up their public efforts in huge rallies Thursday night in the center of Lima.

"We have to make a decision," Keiko Fujimori proclaimed to a sea of supporters clad in orange, her campaign color, "a government that looks to the past and a formula that has failed, or a choice that looks to the future, learning from mistakes of the past, to form a government of reconciliation."

Polls and mock votes have put the two candidates in a statistical tie, the closest election in Peruvian history, according to Fernando Tuesta, head of the Public Opinion Institute at the respected Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.

"All election runoffs tend to create polarization," he said, "but few divide a country in two more or less equal parts."

wilkinson@latimes.com

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