LIMA, PERU — Peruvian voters elected leftist leader Alan García to a five-year term on Sunday, returning the former president to office 16 years after his first stint.
It is a tough defeat for Ollanta Humala, the populist candidate who won the first round less than two months ago. But it is also a blow to Venezuelan leader and US nemesis Hugo Chávez, who openly backed Mr. Humala.
In his election-night address, Mr. García said the result is "a defeat for the expansionist efforts of [Mr. Chávez]. Peru's democracy said 'no' to him."
García's "rhetorical challenges to Hugo Chávez are very welcome to a US government that would very much like allies in the region against Chávez," says Cynthia McClintock, a professor at George Washington University in Washington and specialist on Peru.
In his final campaign swing, García offered to lead a regional alliance to contain Chávez, saying that it is time for the region to stand up to his "petrodollars and imperialism." He envisions a center-left bloc with the leaders of Brazil, Chile, and other nations as a response to a more radical left-wing option pushed by Chávez and Cuban President Fidel Castro.
Chávez's brand of left-wing populism has won over newly elected Bolivian Presi- dent Evo Morales, who recently moved to nationalize his country's gas industry, and is rolling out plans for land reform similar to those Chávez has implemented in Venezuela. Hoping for a similar result in Peru, Chávez backed Humala.
But this support backfired when García, knowing that Chávez enjoys little sympathy in Peru - only 13 percent of Peruvians have a favorable opinion of Chávez in polls - seized on the opportunity and began portraying Humala as a Chávez puppet.
Chávez is also actively backing Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega's presidential bid in Nicaragua.
It remains to be seen whether Chavez's support will help or hurt Mr. Ortega, but there is evidence Chávez has harmed populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador's chances in Mexico's July 2 presidential election. Analysts in Mexico credit a negative ad campaign comparing López Obrador to Chávez with a sharp drop in López Obrador's poll numbers last month. Until then, he had been holding a comfortable lead.
But García will most likely have to forget about Chávez while getting ready to take office on July 28. He will soon have to make good on a list of promises while steering clear of the populist measures that doomed his first presidency in the 1980s.
"We have to have an impact within the first few months in office. If not, we will lose the support of the population," says Enrique Cornejo, principal economic adviser to García and his APRA party.
García's come-from-behind victory in the runoff caps a long road to political rehabilitation that began when he left office in 1990 with only 7 percent support after presiding over what was by all accounts one of the worst administrations in modern Peruvian history.
During García's first presidency, economic collapse spawned political violence at the hands of two guerrilla groups and fueled a drug-trafficking boom.
He spent most of the 1990s out of the country, living in political exile in Colombia and France after his successor, Alberto Fujimori, tried to have him arrested on corruption charges. He returned to Peru in 2001, narrowly losing the presidency then to Alejandro Toledo.
In the meantime he adopted the more moderate center-left tendency that has swept through South America in recent years. He sees himself cut from the same cloth as Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Chile's Michelle Bachelet.
This time, García takes office during Peru's longest economic boom in decades.
But more than half of Peru's 27 million people live in poverty and they have grown impatient with empty promises. Humala, a left-wing nationalist who promised radical change, won in the country's poorest areas, capturing nearly 80 percent of the votes in impoverished southern highlands.
García promised rapid action during the campaign. He pledged to connect 500,000 homes in Lima to the city's water grid, offered low-income loans for farmers and fishermen. Most of all, he has promised to grow the economy by 7 percent annually to stimulate job creation. Employment is the No. 1 concern of Peruvians in public-opinion polls. Only 30 percent of Peru's workforce is adequately employed on payrolls and with social benefits.
"I voted for García because he offered the more serious alternative. I hope he carries out his promises," said electrician José Luis Contreras after casting his ballot. "People don't want to hear that the economy is growing, but want to feel it in their pockets."
García has also tried to assure the business community that he is not the same free-spending, money-printing populist of the 1980s. "Our message has been responsible change. We are going to reduce poverty and inequality, but do it respecting economic management," says Rep. César Zumaeta, who won reelection to Congress with García's APRA.
But García faces a tough political climate.
Humala's Union for Peru party won 45 out of 120 seats in the Congress and his huge margins in the country's poorest areas will give him leverage to keep the pressure on García as an opposition leader.
García's party recognizes the challenge. "[Voters] want responsible, austere management and a solution to the country's problems," says Mr. Cornejo. "We must deliver."