April 12, 2006

Peruvians have penchant for choosing “outsiders”

By Kevin Gray

LIMA, Peru (Reuters) - When construction worker Luis Garcia
cast his ballots in Peru's last two presidential elections, he
was swayed by candidates some people derisively called the

"I don't fear people without political experience," he
said. "It's the traditional politician who worries me. I know
what he does: represent the rich at the expense of the poor."

In recent years, Peruvians have shown a penchant for
choosing political newcomers as president. Former President
Alberto Fujimori was a little-known university rector when he
took power in 1990. His successor, current President Alejandro
Toledo, never held public office before winning in 2001.

This year's race, led by political neophyte Ollanta Humala,
is proving no different.

Whether Humala, a 43-year-old former army commander who is
headed to a runoff vote, can eventually capture the presidency
remains to be seen. But he, too, has clearly benefited from
poor and rural Peruvians' perception of him as "an outsider."

"We're so tired of the politicians in Lima who promise so
much and never deliver," said Teodoro Vasquez, a shop owner in
the southern city of Tacna and a Humala supporter. "We need
someone who can change things, someone from the outside."

Humala is leading Peru's presidential race, with former
President Alan Garcia and pro-business congresswoman Lourdes
Flores battling for a place in a May or early June runoff as
votes continue to be counted.

Flores' candidacy was initially bolstered by the perception
among Peruvians weary of government corruption that women are
honest. But she has struggled to connect with the poor, who
view her as a part of Lima's upper-class.


Humala's campaign has fed on widespread frustration among
Peruvians over years of pro-business policies that have led to
a prosperous stock and bond market and increased foreign
investment but failed to provide basic services such as
drinking water, hospitals, schools and roads.

Averaging 5 percent growth since 2002, Peru's economy is on
pace to expand for a fifth consecutive year. But ordinary
Peruvians say they are seeing little or no benefit.

Illiteracy has hovered around 35 percent in remote Andean
towns and one in every two Peruvians has no access to proper
medical care.

Peruvians perceive the ruling class as cozying up with the
country's European-descended elite. Corruption scandals have
swirled around political leaders and Peruvians have expressed
disgust at politician salaries: a congressman can earn up to
$8,000 a month -- an enormous amount in a country where more
than half the populations live on $1.25 a day or less.

That has shaped Humala's message.

"I'm anti-system if the system is unemployment, people
lining up outside embassies to leave the country, crime and
poverty," Humala said on the campaign trail. "I'm going against
the traditional politicians who govern this country."

Both Fujimori and Toledo carried similar messages when they
won office. But Fujimori's 1990-2000 rule ended amid a rash of
corruption scandals. Graft allegations involving Toledo's
family members and Cabinet ministers have pushed his popularity
ratings into the low double-digits.

In a sign of his struggles, Toledo's Peru Posible party did
not present a presidential candidate in this election.

Still, some Peruvians say voting for "outside" candidates
is their way of sending a message to the Peruvian elite.

"It's as if the upper-class doesn't want to share with us,"
said Alan Costa, a street vendor. "The rich seem to get richer
and the poor poorer. It's as if the system is rigged."

(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott)