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Peru looks set to elect region's next populist

Ollanta Humala leads the polls ahead of Sunday's vote. He reflects views of leaders in Venezuela and Bolivia.

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 7, 2006


Venezuelans have a president who supports peasant land grabs, gives Cuba free oil, and makes dirty jokes about the US secretary of State on national TV. Bolivia recently elected a former llama herder who wears a woolly sweater to formal diplomatic functions and is dedicated to stopping the US eradication of coca, the leaf from which cocaine is made.

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But if Peru's presidential front-runner Ollanta Humala - a retired Army officer with no governing experience - emerges victorious after Sunday's vote, he soon may give Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales a run for their money as the South American leader most worrying to Washington.

"He falls in the same league," says Dennis Jett, former US ambassador to Peru from 1996 to 1999. "He is just as wacky as Chávez and Morales, and perhaps more unpredictable, because, basically, his only experience is an an attempted coup d'état and as a [alleged] human rights abuser."

Until a few months ago, Humala was known mainly for having led a failed military uprising against former president Alberto Fujimori in 2000 - and for allegations that he ordered the torture and killing of suspected leftist guerrilla sympathizers when he commanded a jungle counterinsurgency base in 1992. Humala denies the charges, and an investigation is ongoing. But many once considered him too controversial to be elected.

Yet Humala's support has grown to 32 percent, according to a poll released Sunday by the independent polling firm Apoyo - putting him ahead of all 19 other contenders.

Humala is followed, with 26 percent of voters' support, by Lourdes Flores a conservative, pro-business former congresswoman. Alan Garcia, a former president whose 1985-90 administration left the country in shambles, trails Ms. Flores by three points. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a run-off will take place next month.

A separate poll released Thursday by the independent CPI polling firm indicates that Flores has gained ground on Humala to statistically tie for the lead. But in another poll conducted this week (yet to be released), Apoyo says the results of the poll it released Sunday have not changed. Apoyo is considered the most reliable of Peru's pollsters.

"Humala looks more unstoppable by the minute, whether in the first or second round," says Alvaro Vargas Llosa, a Latin America expert and senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a public policy think tank based in Oakland, Calif. "In fact, the polls are probably underestimating his overall support because of the technical difficulties of measuring the rural vote."

At rallies, Humala likes to tell a joke about a candidate who promises impoverished voters he will build a school, a hospital, and a bridge if elected. When the candidate is told that no river runs through the region, he promises to build one of those, too. "I do not make empty promises," Humala is fond of saying. "But I have plans."

Many of those plans include renegotiating contracts and hiking taxes for foreign-owned oil and mining companies, just as Chávez and Morales are doing. Peru is the world's third largest copper producer and last year overtook Russia to become the fifth biggest gold miner.