April 6, 2006

Peru campaigns end, polls show nationalist leads

By Patricia Zengerle

AREQUIPA, Peru (Reuters) - Thousands of brightly clad
Peruvians rallied to mark the formal end of campaigning on
Thursday as pollsters said nationalist Ollanta Humala remained
ahead in the presidential race but was unlikely to win in the
first round.

In Arequipa, in southern Peru where the front-running
retired army commander's support is strongest, the central
Plaza de Armas was so crowded with thousands of Humala
supporters that some hung in trees and from lampposts.

Bands played and speakers exhorted people to give Humala a
big victory on Sunday, removing the need for a second round.

"The first round, the first round!" they chanted and
cheered, many dressed in red T-shirts reading: "For love of
Peru," similar to those in which Humala campaigns.

Right-of-center Lourdes Flores, the business favorite whom
polls put in second place, and center-left former President
Alan Garcia, in third place, both closed their campaigns in the
capital, Lima, where police said they were deploying more than
7,000 officers to keep order.

Peruvian law mandates that Thursday must be the last day of
campaigning before the election.

Pollsters said on Thursday that Humala still led, but
remained below the 50 percent support he would need on April 9
to avoid a second round next month.

Alfredo Torres, director of Apoyo, considered Peru's most
reliable polling company, told Reuters exact figures would be
released on Saturday, but the latest survey showed a similar
trend to an Apoyo poll released on Sunday that gave Humala 31
percent versus 26 percent for Flores and 23 percent for Garcia.

Torres suggested that Garcia, who heads the center-left
APRA party, was gaining on Flores.

A separate survey by polling firm CPI showed Flores had
gained ground on Humala to statistically tie for the lead and
that Humala would likely be defeated in a second round.

Flores, who was the front-runner in the polls until
mid-February, saw her voter support rise slightly to 27.6
percent, just ahead of Humala, CPI said.

Humala, who has campaigned to restrict private investment
in Peru, slipped 5.6 points since the last CPI poll a week ago,
dropping to 25.9 percent, the survey found.

"Humala's support has fallen because of a barrage of
attacks against him these last few days ... That has generated
a fear of voting for the unknown," CPI director Manuel Saavedra
told Reuters.

But in Arequipa, Humala's supporters were as enthusiastic
as ever about their hero. Many were indigenous Peruvians, and
there were more rainbow-striped Incan flags than those of Peru.

Many said one reason they adore their candidate, who is of
mixed race in a country long dominated by a European-descended
elite, is that he respects them.

"He will do more for our children than the others. He wants
dignity for us," said Fida Huamani, 40, an Amerindian woman
selling Incan flags and cheering at the rally.

(Additional reporting by Maria Luisa Palomino and Teresa
Cespedes in Lima)