April 9, 2006

Peruvians are polarized heading into election

By Kevin Gray

LIMA, Peru (Reuters) - Deeply divided along class lines,
Peruvians head to the polls on Sunday in a tightly contested
presidential race led by a leftist nationalist vowing "a
revolution to give Peru's riches to the poor."

Ollanta Humala, a former army commander backed by
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and accused of human rights
abuses, which he denies, is aiming to become the latest
left-leaning leader to rise to power in Latin America.

Opinion polls show him holding a slight lead over two other
candidates but unlikely to garner the more than 50 percent of
the vote needed to avoid a May runoff.

A final pre-election Apoyo poll showed Humala likely to
face either Lourdes Flores, a center-right former congresswoman
bidding to become Peru's first woman president, or Alan Garcia,
a left-of-center former president, in a second round vote.

Viewed as an outsider in a country where the political
class is widely discredited, Humala has rallied support among
the poor majority who say they have yet to benefit from the
country's strong economic growth since 2002.

His campaign rhetoric -- with pledges to increase state
control over the economy and redistribute wealth by hiking
taxes on mining companies with "excessive" profits -- has
rattled investors and many among Peru's European-descended

"We have to share our (country's) riches with the poor.
Multinational companies can't carry away everything," Humala
said to raucous cheers recently on the campaign trail.


Humala has vowed that, if elected, he will industrialize
production of coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine, and
cancel a free-trade agreement with United States -- pledges
that have raised concern in Washington.

Peru is the world's No. 2 cocaine producer after Colombia.

But in a country where more than half the population lives
on $1.25 a day or less, Humala's fiery speeches railing against
"the dictatorship" of the rich have resonated in rural and poor
urban areas.

"He's exactly what this country needs -- a military man
with a strong hand to make things right and stand up for the
little guy," said Oscar Lopez, a street vendor in Lima.

Humala, 43, has never held elected office. He rose to
political prominence after he led a failed coup against former
President Alberto Fujimori in 2000, months before Fujimori's
government fell amid corruption allegations and violent street


A recent series of polls showed Humala's top two rivals,
both seasoned politicians, trailing him by an increasingly
narrow margin.

The Apoyo poll showed Garcia and Flores are neck-and-neck
for second place with 23 percent. Humala has 27 percent.

A potential Garcia-Humala runoff would worry investors.

The 56-year-old Garcia presided over economic turmoil and
surging Shining Path rebel violence during his 1985-90 term.

But he has seen his support rise in the last week of
campaigning as he rallied his heartland in northern Peru.

Garcia, who has repeatedly lashed out at Humala, promises
to rewrite contracts with Peru's private utilities and levy a
windfall tax on mining companies.

Flores, a 46-year-old lawyer who topped polls only months
ago, has also targeted Humala while playing up her chances of
becoming Peru's first female leader in a country were many are
weary of corruption and women are perceived as more honest.

In a possible second round, polls have indicated that
Flores would defeat Humala, but a potential run-off between
Garcia and Humala is too close to call.

"It's going to be heart-stopping finish, one of the most
interesting (Peruvian) elections in recent history," said
Manuel Torrado, director of the Datum polling firm.

(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott)