April 9, 2006

Peruvians choose between leftists, conservative

By Robin Emmott

LIMA, Peru (Reuters) - Peruvians voted for a new president
on Sunday in a tight race pitting a leftist vowing a
"revolution" for the poor against an ex-president who left the
country in economic chaos and a business-friendly conservative
bidding to be Peru's first female leader.

Leading pre-election polls was Ollanta Humala, 43, a former
army commander and ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez,
who would become another in a string of Latin American leftists
who recently have risen to power challenging U.S. policies.

"Today, with our vote, we have the chance to initiate a
major transformation of our country," Humala told reporters.

Peruvians waited in long lines to cast their ballots, but
election observers said voting was calm, with no reports of

Surveys showed Humala holding a slight lead over his two
main rivals, but unlikely to garner the more than 50 percent of
the vote needed to avoid a May runoff. He is expected to face
either Lourdes Flores, a former congresswoman, or Alan Garcia,
a left-of center former president, in a second round.

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

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

He also has faced allegations of human rights abuses, which
he denies, as an army commander while Peru fought the Shining
Path insurgency of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Humala has vowed to industrialize production of coca, the
raw material for cocaine, and block a free-trade agreement with
the United States -- raising concern in Washington.

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


Humala's praise of Peru's 1970s military dictatorship and
attacks against big business and fiery speeches railing against
"the dictatorship" of the rich and corrupt government have
resonated in poor areas.

"Humala represents a change -- running water, work, and an
end to the corruption by our dirty politicians," said Roberto
Diaz, 34, after voting in a Lima slum.

Humala has not held elected office. He rose to prominence
after leading a failed coup against former President Alberto
Fujimori in 2000, months before corruption allegations and
violent street protests toppled Fujimori's government.

"Humala is a jump into the unknown. It's a return to
military rule," said Ricardo Ladron de Guevarra, 28, a student
voting for Flores in an affluent Lima neighborhood.

"Lourdes isn't the best candidate, but I'm afraid of Humala
and Garcia."

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

The last Apoyo poll showed Humala with 27 percent and
Garcia and Flores tied for second place with 23 percent.

The nationwide survey of 3,892 potential voters was
conducted on April 8 and had a margin of error of 2 percentage
points. It did not address a possible second round.

A potential Garcia-Humala runoff would worry investors.

Garcia, 56, presided over economic turmoil and surging
Shining Path rebel violence during his 1985-90 term. But his
support rose in the campaign's final days as he rallied his
heartland in northern Peru.

Garcia promises to rewrite contracts with Peru's private
utilities and levy a windfall tax on mining companies.

Flores, 46, a lawyer who topped polls only months ago, has
played up her potential role as Peru's first female leader in a
country in which women are perceived as more honest.

In a second round, polls have indicated Flores would defeat
Humala but a Garcia-Humala run-off would be too close to call.

(Additional reporting by Kevin Gray)