April 9, 2006

Nationalist leads Peru vote, fight for runoff

By Robin Emmott

LIMA, Peru (Reuters) - Former army commander Ollanta
Humala, a nationalist campaigning to put Peru's economy in
state hands, led the presidential election on Sunday and
appeared headed to a second round, exit polls showed.

Leftist former President Alan Garcia and conservative
pro-business candidate Lourdes Flores were in a virtual tie for
second and a place in the runoff in May.

The first official results were expected around 8 p.m (9
p.m. EDT/ 0100 GMT on Monday).

Humala, whose support is strongest among Peru's rural poor,
had about 30 percent of the vote. Garcia and Flores were tied
for second place with about 25 percent each, the polls said.

"It's going to be a tight battle for the second round, but
it is clear that Humala is in the runoff," Alfredo Torres,
director of pollster Apoyo, told America Television, as
Humala's supporters took to the streets to celebrate.

If he wins in May, Humala, an ally of Venezuelan President
Hugo Chavez, would be the latest in a string of Latin American
leftists who have won power challenging U.S. policies.

Humala, 43, has campaigned to scrap a free-trade deal with
Washington and aims to levy new royalties on mining companies,
including Denver-based Newmont, as well as industrializing
production of coca, raw material for cocaine.

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

Investors worry about a second-round between Humala and
Garcia, who presided over economic collapse during his
1985-1990 rule. Garcia, 56, had seen his backing rise in the
final pre-election polls, as support ebbed for Flores, 46, a
lawyer who has failed to connect with Peru's poor majority.

Garcia could repeat his performance in the 2001 election,
when he slipped past Flores at the last minute to face off
against outgoing President Alejandro Toledo.

"We're going to see a tough battle over the ballots and
Flores and Garcia are going to want every vote counted,"
political analyst Alberto Adrianzen told Reuters.


Voting was largely calm. Two small explosions were heard in
a coca-growing area in the central Andes while the polls were
open, but caused no harm or disruption.

In Lima, thousands of angry people swarmed Humala as he
voted in a middle-class neighborhood, shouting "murderer,
murderer" and "Ollanta is Chavez!" Some, including wealthy
women holding designer handbags, hurled trash at him before he
was escorted away by riot police carrying shields.

Humala's confrontational campaign and his promises of
wealth redistribution have polarized Peruvians.

Peru's upper classes and business leaders worry that
Humala, who draws inspiration from the country's 1970s military
dictatorship, represents a return to autocratic rule.

His military background and failed coup in 2000 against
then President Alberto Fujimori have added to those concerns.

"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, but I'm afraid of Humala and Garcia."

But the poor, who have not benefited from strong economic
growth and are tired of politics as usual, have rallied around
his outsider, underdog status.

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

Humala's popularity has risen among the needy despite a
smear campaign in Peru's media and allegations of human rights
abuses as a soldier, which he denies.

"I'm a victim of an anti-democratic campaign, a political
ambush," Humala told reporters.

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

(Additional reporting by Kevin Gray and Marco Aquino)