February 8, 2006

Smiling and single, woman leads Peru president race

By Mary Milliken

AREQUIPA, Peru (Reuters) - They may be poor and tired, but
the women who have come to hear Lourdes Flores talk about her
plans to become Peru's first female president are no pushovers.

"We are listening to the message of Senora Lourdes, but
these people always promise to work with the poorest, the
neediest mothers, and they just don't deliver," said
Alejandrina Chunga, sitting at the foot of a gray shantytown in
Arequipa, Peru's second largest city.

Flores, a 46-year-old lawyer who leads the polls for the
April 9 election, hopes to crack the resistance person by
person, talking to everyone she can in the crowd of 2,000.

Flores still has hard work to do. She is viewed by some
suspicion and skepticism by many of Peru's majority poor --
whose Indian roots run deep -- for her whiter skin, her
privileged background and her pro-business leanings.

She ran unsuccessfully for Peru's top office in 2001. Since
then the economy has taken off, but the poor like the women
here in Arequipa have little to show for the country's newfound
mining and energy wealth.

"In these five years, people have grown more skeptical,"
Flores told Reuters out on the campaign trail. "So my efforts

in this campaign zero in on people's everyday problems."

That effort sometimes did not pay off. Some local media
made fun of her spending New Year's Eve in a tiny hut with a
dirt poor shantytown family -- seeing it as a publicity stunt
from one of Peru's elite.

There is also the question of whether Peru is ready for a
female president. But neighboring Chile, which is similarly
conservative on social issues, just elected its first woman
president, Michelle Bachelet.

Flores has never married and has no children but she
nurtures voters like a mother. With a permanent big-toothed
smile on her face, she caresses the windburned faces of
indigenous children, dances with teenagers and tells mothers to
take care of their health.

Instead of promising big investment, she promotes
micro-credit and training for small business. She keeps her
message simple and personal -- something she says her male
adversaries cannot hope to emulate.

"They think they hold the truth and that people have to
listen to them," she said. "I will develop a different style of
government. A firm hand, but also lots of dialogue and contact
with daily life."


In a fragmented field of 22 candidates, Flores' most
serious opponents are former military officer Ollanta Humala
who espouses nationalism and ex-president Alan Garcia, who left
the economy in ruin in the 1980s. The race is likely to go to a
May runoff between the top two finishers.

As Flores climbed in the polls in recent weeks to around 30
percent of the vote, 10 points more than her adversaries, the
top weekly news magazine Caretas showed her on the cover
lighting a candle and asked: "Lourdes, is she ready?"

"With this kind of advantage, unless there are serious
errors, Lourdes Flores is likely to win the presidency," said
Eduardo Toche, political analyst at the Center of Studies and
Promotion of Development in Lima.

Toche said Flores needs to be very careful in the next two
months because Peru has a record of last-minute electoral
upsets like author Mario Vargas Llosa's loss to Alberto
Fujimori in 1990.

Flores wins high marks for her record of honesty, a sharp
contrast with outgoing President Alejandro Toledo, who lied
about the existence of an illegitimate daughter.

But she must also fend off accusations that she represents
the free-market model that has failed to make a dent in the
poverty that affects half of the 26 million Peruvians.

"They try to put a label on me," Flores said. "But what I
am proposing is the integration of those left out of the
free-market economic model. That has nothing to do with the
liberalism and market opening of the 1990s."

As Latin America shifts to the left in a backlash against
U.S.-backed free-market policies in the region, Flores is not
afraid to show she favors an open market and a free-trade deal
in negotiations with the United States. But she maintains she
is neither conservative nor right of center.

"With the poverty and inequality of Peru and Latin America,
the last thing you can be is a conservative," she said. "I am a
social democrat, a Christian democrat."

"Because she doesn't have children, some think she doesn't
know about the struggle us mothers have to feed our kids," said
Annette Surca at the Arequipa rally. "But I'll vote for her
because it's time for a woman."