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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.

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Humala also wants to make changes to the free trade agreement with the US that Peru signed in December, and plans to establish protections against cheap imports from China, which, he says, are wrecking industry here.

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But his positions on trade are not all that worry his detractors. His vows to clamp down on crime and corruption play well, but his admiration for Gen. Juan Velasco, the left-wing military dictator who ruled Peru with a heavy hand from 1968 to 1975 gives some voters pause. And his promise to end US-sponsored coca- eradication programs, much as Morales has begun to do in Bolivia alarms Washington, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars combating narcotraffiking in Peru, the world's second-biggest coca-leaf provider.

Also, many voters here question various positions staked by family members who Humala has distanced himself from, but rarely denounced. Humala's father, Isaac, an ultranationalist who founded a movement based on the superiority of the Indian race over Spanish descendents, has called for the release of jailed leaders of Shining Path, the Maoist guerrilla group that terrorized Peru throughout the 1980s and '90s. His mother, Helena, has suggested that homosexuals be shot so "there is not so much immorality in the streets." Humala's younger brother Antauro is in jail for leading a failed military uprising against President Alejandro Toledo last year in which four policemen were killed.

So, what is the essence of Humala's appeal?He is, many will say simply, "one of us - an outsider." It's the ultimate compliment in a country where frustration with traditional politicians has made being an "insider" synonymous with elitism, antipathy, and even corruption.

Peru's most respected and well-known novelist Mario Vargas Llosa lost presidential elections in 1990 to Alberto Fujimori, a son of Japanese immigrants and a little-known dean of an agricultural university in Lima. In 1995, Fujimori beat UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar by managing to cast himself as an "outsider" again, even after five years in office. Then, in 2001, Toledo, a former shoeshine boy who became World Bank consultant, was elected to the top job with no governing experience.

Despite the fact that Humala spent his youth in a middle-class Lima suburb, he nonetheless successfully cultivated the "anti-system," stance and managed to paint his political inexperience as an asset.

Humala's friendship with Venezuelan President Chávez, who has publicly endorsed Humala's candidacy, also helps his image as an anti-establishment figure. Chávez has called Humala the "voice of Peru's downtrodden," and described Mrs. Flores as "the candidate of Peru's oligarchy."

At a rally Wednesday night in downtown Lima, photocopy shop worker Edgardo Oliveres, admits he is "not really sure about who Humala is, or what he will do." Nonetheless, Mr. Oliveres says he is sure Humala is the best option. "At least with Humala, as we don't know him, there is a chance he will surprise us."