Peru's presidential race yields divergent front-runners


LIMA, Peru -- She is a conservative lawmaker vying to become Peru's first female president.

He is a former army officer whose fiery nationalist rhetoric and kinship with leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have set off alarms in Washington.

She calls a prospective free trade accord with the United States "a magnificent opportunity"; he is wary and regularly denounces what he calls greedy transnational companies' devouring of the national bounty.

She is perceived as the candidate of the capital's elite; he is the self-styled representative of the country's disenfranchised.

This nation of 28 million will go to the polls April 9 to elect a new president and national legislature. The current chief executive, Alejandro Toledo, a Bush administration favorite whose five-year term has been dogged by scandal and unfulfilled expectations, is prohibited by law from seeking a consecutive term.

The characteristically rough-and-tumble campaign involving almost two dozen declared presidential contestants has yielded two very divergent front-runners:

Lourdes Flores, 46, a longtime congresswoman who ran unsuccessfully for president five years ago, is the preferred candidate of the establishment. The center-right lawyer would become South America's second sitting woman president, after Chile's Michelle Bachelet, a Socialist who took office March 11.

Ollanta Humala, who retired from the military after more than two decades in uniform, has wooed the battered urban multitudes and Andean peasants in a country where more than half the population remains mired in poverty despite robust economic growth in recent years. Humala, 42, has never held elective office and is campaigning as a voice of change, an enigmatic outsider pledging to renegotiate multinational contracts, enforce state control of the lucrative mining and gas sectors and eject the "corrupt ones" from power.

U.S. officials, although not commenting publicly on the election, are worried that a Humala victory would give Venezuela's Chavez a major new ally.

Despite his upper-middle-class upbringing, early education in a Japanese-Peruvian school and cozy postings as a military attache in Paris and Seoul, South Korea, Humala has consistently played the populist card.

"We need a country where four or five families don't decide the nation's destiny," he told an enthusiastic crowd recently in a working-class area of southern Lima, the capital. "We must impose discipline. We must bring order to the country."

Although Flores has pledged to maintain the pro-business policies favored by the Toledo administration, she has adopted an almost socialist line in her speeches, pledging to reform public health care and education, two major preoccupations of Peruvians.

When asked during a recent interview whether she was a surrogate for Peru's small elite, she snapped, "That is not true.

"We have to recognize that economic growth must also incorporate the most marginalized sectors."

Polls here have shown the two chief candidates alternating in the top spot, although many voters remain undecided. The most recent surveys have found Humala surging into the lead, with about one-third of the prospective vote. Flores, whose support has been slipping, trails him by about 4 percentage points, according to a recent Apoyo poll.

Most experts agree that no candidate is likely to receive 50 percent of the vote, which would mean a runoff in May.

Humala has faced difficult questions about the dubious records of other candidates on his ticket and widely publicized allegations of human rights abuses while he was an army officer known as "Capitan Carlos" in the Peruvian tropics during the 1990s "dirty war" against leftist guerrillas. Widespread uncertainty about what Humala represents, and his campaign's image of disarray, have raised doubts among investors and others in a nation where democracy and stability are viewed as delicate.

Critics openly question Humala's commitment to democracy. He led a failed uprising in the dying days of the regime of ex-President Alberto Fujimori.

Flores has had her own issues.

Notably lacking in charisma, she has endeavored to inject energy into her campaign by gamely trudging to shantytowns, isolated villages and provincial outposts.

Followers of Humala have shadowed Flores, questioning the sincerity of what they term her newfound concern for the downtrodden - and, at times, even wondering aloud about her status as a single, childless woman in what is still a largely traditional society.

Poll watchers say Flores' gender might be an advantage, because many voters here consider women less likely to be sullied by Peru's notoriously crooked political culture.

Backers of Humala counter that he, as a political neophyte, is untainted, whereas Flores, they say, is the product of a corrupt system.

Patrick J. McDonnell writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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