LIMA, PERU — In the world of Latin American politics, macho doesn't apply only to the male animal.
Just ask Lourdes Flores, the female contender among eight candidates in Peru's presidential election Sunday.
"Unfortunately, machismo is not only a masculine trait, it is also a feminine attitude," says Ms. Flores, a lawyer and veteran congresswoman. As many women as men "think it isn't proper," she says, for her to aspire to the presidency.
The gender factor in Latin American politics is complex. Women are perceived to be more honest, which is why some cities have put women in key police assignments to combat corruption. And Flores, in her bid to become Peru's first female president, draws on her reputation for integrity. Among her poster slogans: "Unimpeachable."
But there are other cultural biases working against this Catholic conservative in a close race. "We find consistently that men are more open to voting for a woman than are women," says Marta Lagos, director of MORI Latin opinion research in Santiago, Chile. And Latin women often question whether fellow women are tough enough for political office, says Ms. Lagos: "Women identify themselves as weak, and they don't want that in a president."
The past few weeks have taught Flores about the harsh attitudes that female candidates for president in other Latin countries have confronted in recent years. Though Flores is herself right-of-center politically, most conservative women oppose a female president as subverting a woman's traditional place in the home. At the other end of the spectrum, many liberal-thinking women are against Flores's conservatism.
Still, Flores has her supporters among women. "A woman president makes very good sense for the same reason that the men leave us to administer the home - they know we won't defraud our own family, we're more honest and we work harder," says Elvia Soto, an unemployed psychologist who attended a recent Flores rally.
In recent years, women candidates have drawn attention in presidential races in Venezuela, Argentina, and Colombia. If Flores does make the runoff, she will have gone the furthest toward winning the prize. (Violeta Chamorro was president of Nicaragua from 1990-1996, and Mireya Moscoso is currently president of Panama, but both women rode into office on the coattails of deceased husbands who were popular national leaders.)
Whoever wins will be faced with restoring confidence in Peru's political class, tainted by a corruption scandal that toppled the last president, Alberto Fujimori.
After a surge in opinion polls earlier this year that had her nipping the heels of front-runner Alejandro Toledo, a US-educated economist, Flores is now fighting to hold on to second place.
Flores, who had risen in the opinion polls to more than a quarter of voter preference, has recently lost some ground among voters worried about the influence of former Fujimori supporters in her circle of advisors, and a racial slur by Flores's father against Mr. Toledo, who is of Indian descent. Analysts say some voters assume that a woman will be more dependent on her advisers, and that she will always be her daddy's girl.
Sunday's presidential election was prompted after Mr. Fujimori, who had only begun his controversial third consecutive five-year term in July, resigned. Since his resignation, the country has been gripped by the broadcasts of videotapes made by Fujimori's disgraced former spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, which reveal cash-for-favors deals.
As the recognized leader of Peru's anti-Fujimori, pro-democracy movement, Toledo was the immediate presidential favorite, and has never lost the front-runner position. But he has not been able to maintain a lead that would assure a first-round victory. The race grew hotter when exiled former President Alan Garcia returned, threw his hat in the ring, and surprised everyone by grabbing about 20 percent of voter preference in surveys.
Running against the popular Toledo and the comeback Garcia, Flores - dressed in low-heeled shoes and pastel or black pantsuits, with her trademark smile ablaze - is doing her best to turn the gender issue in her favor.
"Many of you are women who have learned to perform miracles in the home, feeding a family with five soles [about $1.50) a day!" she declares in a speech-strained voice to a large crowd in a dusty Lima working-class suburb. "My experience and honesty as a woman offer you the assurance that I will bring this community the water and sewer service you deserve!"
In her campaign, Flores proposes to revive Peru's economy with privatizations, tax cuts, and trims in military spending.
Meanwhile, Peruvian women's groups are working to increase women's participation in government. "We don't argue that women are more honest or somehow more enlightened, but we know that women representatives are more likely to take up issues of importance to women," says Ana Maria Yanez, coordinator of a consortium of women's groups encouraging voters to support female congressional candidates.
Other women's leaders support some female congressional candidates, but adamantly oppose Flores, whom they see as unrepresentative because she is single and a conservative Roman Catholic.
"Lourdes's candidacy is a polarizing factor because women are so divided over her politics," says Maria Esther Mogollon, director of the Inclusive Women's Movement in Lima. "Our position is we can end up worse off voting for candidates just because they are women."
At the Flores rally, some women say the blow a woman president would strike against machismo is good enough reason to support her. "Lourdes is strong enough to combat machismo head on, and Peru is 100 percent machista," says bank employee Josefa Huillca. Recent college graduate Yesenia Paz, also at the rally, counters: "We're not ready for a woman president, on that I agree with my boyfriend."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor