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Peru election highlights decline of Latin America's hard-core left

The rebranding of left-leaning populist Ollanta Humala ahead of today's Peru election shows the wide spectrum of leftism in today's Latin America and how the most radical fold has started to wane.

By Staff writer / June 5, 2011

Left-leaning populist presidential candidate Ollanta Humala, a former follower of Hugo Chávez, greets supporters outside a polling station, after casting his ballot in a presidential runoff election in Lima, Peru, Sunday.

Karel Navarro/AP

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The last time Ollanta Humala was close to capturing the presidency in Peru, cries of the "leftist tide" of Latin America were at a fever pitch.

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Painted by his detractors as a lackey of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who was wielding influence with petrodollars spread far and wide, Mr. Humala ultimately lost the race to Alan Garcia.

Five years later, the choices once again could not be starker for Peruvians as they choose between left-leaning populist Humala and right-wing lawmaker Keiko Fujimori in today's presidential run-off.

But while the 2011 race is an extremely polarized one, it is not an ideological battle. In fact, Humala, once a fiery leftist promising to guard against any kind of "neoliberal" agenda, has refashioned himself as a moderate leftist, appealing to a Peru that has seen tremendous economic growth over the past decade. His rebranding shows the wide spectrum of leftism in today's Latin America and how the most radical fold has started to wane.

"Five years ago, [Humala] was a follower of Mr. Hugo Chávez. Now he sees that Chávez is a failure," says Augusto Alvarez Rodrich, a columnist for La Republica in Peru. Instead, he is looking to perhaps the most successful leftist in the region – former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. "He says he wants to follow the path that Mr. Lula forged."

Polls show a statistical tie between Humala and Ms. Fujimori, the daughter of jailed former President Alberto Fujimori. Both candidates count many detractors, but it is more for their political baggage than for their policy positions.

Fujimori's father, whose presidency collapsed amid human rights allegations including the use of death squads, looms over her campaign, prompting many Peruvians to ask what justice would look like under her leadership.

Humala, an ex-Army officer and nationalist, remains a wild card for many. He hasn't shed his hard-core leftist reputation among the business set: After the first round of voting in April that put him out front, Peruvian markets plunged. But he says he has no intention of repeating the "Venezuela model" in Peru, even though he promised to share economic prosperity with the poor one-third of Peruvians left behind amid 9 percent growth last year. Some of his positions today are even to the right of Fujimori, says Mr. Alvarez Rodrich. "This is not a contest between the right and left," he says.

Tacking to the center

Humala's make-over into a moderate is by no means unique in the region. Perhaps Latin America's most popular leader, Mr. da Silva (widely referred to simply as "Lula"), was a far-left union leader before governing from the center. Uruguayan President Jose Mujica was once a guerrilla but today is a moderate. In El Salvador, President Mauricio Funes came from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front but early on dispelled fears that he was a Marxist.

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