Leftist Humala leads Peru election polls, but undecided voters could cause upset

Eleven percent of the electorate was still undecided ahead of today's Peru election, a fact that could swing the vote away from leading candidate Ollanta Humala.

By , Correspondent

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    Electoral workers load boxes of ballots for delivery to polling stations, in Lima, Peru, Saturday. Sunday's presidential race is shaping up as the most unpredictable in decades. The latest polls indicate that the leftist Humala lead by a margin, but undecided voters could change that.
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Peru’s closely fought presidential election may come down to voters like Miguel Peña when more than 19 million people go to the polls today.

Mr. Peña, who helps park cars at a supermarket in Lima, the capital, has not decided who he will vote for out of a field of 10 candidates. He says he is still trying to decide between front-runner Ollanta Humala, former President Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006), and former Finance Minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.

“I like Humala, because he says he will work for the poor, but we hear on the radio that he will take the country backwards. I haven’t decided, but I think it might be Humala,” he says.

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Peña is among 11 percent of the electorate that is still undecided and could toss a last-minute wrench into a race that has seen four people take the lead in the past two months. Mr. Humala, the only major left-wing candidate in the race, was the latest to break out of the pack.

And he has broken out decisively, according to internal polls seen by the Monitor but not allowed to be published. Fernando Tuesta, head of the polling institute at Peru’s Catholic University, says Humala “will make it to a second round unless something catastrophic happens.”

Most private polls now project him winning about 30 percent of the vote, a 10-point lead over the second place candidate, but still very far from the overall majority needed to win outright and avoid a runoff scheduled for June 5.

Candidates gang up on Humala

Other candidates in the race are warning of dire consequences if Humala were to govern Peru and they all want to be the one to stop him. Mr. Toledo, 64, who only one month ago appeared on track to coast to victory and is now battling for his political life, has started running ads calling Humala a danger and saying Peru would stumble backwards at a rapid pace if he were to win.

Mr. Kuczynski is in the same boat as Toledo, but he has been trending upward and could break out if voters such as Peña make the last minute decision to vote for the 72-year-old economist and concert flautist. He has been taken to task for only renouncing his US citizenship in late March, when it looked like he had a fighting chance for an upset, but on Saturday he got a boost with an endorsement from the ruling APRA party.

Kuczynski, who was one of Toledo’s finance ministers, says a Humala victory “would be nefarious for Peru. He could waste 10 years of growth and set the country back decades.”

Toledo and Kuczynski, who are in a dead heat, may be criticizing the frontrunner, but their sights are actually set on Congresswoman Keiko Fujimori. They would need to beat her to get into a runoff with Humala. She is polling at about 22 percent, within the margin of error of most polls for either man to beat her. She has been stuck at this level most of the campaign, with Toledo dropping below and Kuczynski sneaking up on her.

Keiko Fujimori touts record of imprisoned father

The congresswoman is the daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), the son of Japanese immigrants who is currently serving 25 years in prison for a conviction on human rights abuses. He was also sentenced to shorter terms for corruption during his 10-year regime.

Most candidates would run away from that kind of record, but Ms. Fujimori has actually embraced it even more strongly as the race has ended. One of her last ads featured her father’s voice. The gamble is that voters will remember the elder Fujimori vanquishing inflation and terrorism in the early 1990s, and not the president who fled Peru and the presidency for Japan in November 2000.

All three candidates expect to beat Humala if they make it to the runoff. He also took first place in 2006, but went on to lose in a runoff to current President Alan García, who is barred from seeking a second, consecutive term. Ms. Fujimori’s father also placed second in the first round of his initial run in 1990, coming from nowhere to beat the odds-on favorite, Mario Vargas Llosa, in the final run-off vote.

Mr. Vargas Llosa, an acclaimed novelist who won the first Nobel prize for Peru last year, recently endorsed Toledo. He has called a Fujimori-Humala runoff like having to choose between terminal cancer and AIDS.

Humala brushes off the insults and has refused to attack his opponents, saying that all the candidates in the race have contributed to strengthening the country’s democracy by running.

Humala taps into concerns, but Chávez is liability

Giovanna Peñaflor, heading of the IMASEN polling company, says Mr. Humala, despite what his critics say, has run the best campaign. “He has offered the most disciplined, consistent message and has focused on the issues voters have mentioned,” he says.

While the other leading candidates have talked about maintaining the policies that have led to Peru’s rapid economic growth – the economy is expected to expand by more than 9 percent in the first quarter of this year – Humala tapped into widespread discontent that the numbers are good, but the growth has not trickled down. He is the only candidate who has pledged to change the economic program, as well as increase the minimum wage, create a pension plan for retirees who were never on a payroll, and add a new national daycare program for infants, all programs that have helped him more than double his poll numbers in the past month.

Alfredo Torres, of the Ipsos Apoyo polling firm, says Humala also capitalized on the growing concern with crime. “Security is a central issue for voters and they are looking for a candidate who can improve things. This has benefitted Humala,” he says.

There are reasons, however, why 70 percent of the population is looking at other candidates.

First among them is fear that Humala is too close to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and would like to implement that socialist model here. He spiritedly denied that to foreign reporters on April 8, albeit adding that he has no problem with Mr. Chávez. “We respect the president, but not the model. We don’t believe in reelection, we don’t believe in controlling the exchange rate, we don’t believe in the executive having control over the central reserve bank,” he said.

The Chávez card will be played up big after the April 10 voting, says Ms. Peñaflor. “The presence of Chávez was not that noticeable in the first round, but the media will make a big deal and Humala will have to respond,” she says.

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