Peru's prodigal son returns

Alan Garcia takes second place. Run-off in mid-May.

Sunday's presidential vote may have dealt Peru another six weeks of uncertainty before a runoff, but one thing's for sure: Second-place winner Alan Garcia is the country's comeback kid.

In a surprisingly strong showing, Mr. Garcia bested six candidates to take the No. 2 spot and the right to face top finisher Alejandro Toledo in a mid-May run-off.

Toledo, an international economist and teacher, was clearly disappointed with his return of 36 percent.

Having fled Peru a decade ago after a disastrous 1985-90 presidency, Garcia returned early this year and drew derision when he announced his intention to seek the top job again. For weeks he hovered around 12 percent in opinion polls, a figure about equal to his Aprista political party's national strength. But in Sunday's first round, Garcia took 26 percent in unofficial returns, slightly surpassing third-place finisher Lourdes Flores. A veteran member of Congress and the only female candidate, Ms. Flores won almost 24 percent.

The results, which also produced a very divided Congress with no clear working majority, reveal an electorate turning away from the political right of self-exiled ex-president Alberto Fujimori. Flores refused yesterday to accept Garcia's apparent second-place finish. Tightening results suggest Peru could produce a "second Palm Beach," she warned, referring to the controversial Florida vote in last November's US presidential election. Nonetheless, the vote signals a rejection of Flores's Christian-Democratic right politics.

"What stands out is a veering towards the left," says University of Lima political analyst Juan Abugattas. "There's a clear rejection of Fujimori authoritarianism, but also of the neoliberal economic model" of tight fiscal policy and heavier dependence on the private sector.

Some Peruvian economists say Garcia's result will be poorly received by international investors and will mean greater economic difficulties for Peru in the short run.

The run-off's winner will take office July 28 - a year after Mr. Fujimori began a third term that ended abruptly in December, when he resigned and fled to Japan amid a deepening corruption scandal. Fujimori had won the third term in a fraudulent election that circumvented term limits and sparked a boycott of the second round by Toledo, who had finished second.

Garcia's comeback in this year's election is a testament to his powers as a communicator who capitalized on the deep doubts about Toledo and Flores that seemed to grow among Peruvians as the campaign progressed. As those two campaigns sniped back and forth about everything from personality issues to ethnicity and racism in Peru, Garcia remained above the fray.

Though Garcia is remembered by many Peruvians for leaving the country amid quadruple-digit inflation, it was, ironically, deep concern among voters about Peru's economic straits that handed Garcia the run-off berth. Admitting mistakes in his youth - Garcia became president at 36 - he hammered at the free-market economic model widely followed in Latin America for the past decade.

Garcia, who in his earlier tenure unilaterally limited foreign debt payments, now says he would work with international financial institutions and creditors to reduce Peru's annual debt payment from $2.1 billion to $1.7 billion - to free up $400 million annually for social needs he says the private sector doesn't address. And he would implement temporary tariffs on imports of products that Peru produces, such as cotton, to boost domestic agriculture and jobs. "It's in the interest of international business to see a reactivated consumer market in Peru," he says.

Though Garcia's surprisingly strong initial results make him the man of the hour, Toledo remains the run-off favorite, according to some analysts. "Toledo still has the easier task of putting together the sectors of support he needs to win," says Mr. Abugattas. "But he's going to have to do it without appearing to go to the right, and by reminding voters of Garcia's past without looking like he's on the attack." Other analysts say that though Toledo finished well above Garcia, neither can count on support coming to him in blocs from other candidates. In the days ahead, Toledo will have to analyze why he has been unable to pierce the 40 percent ceiling hanging over him since last year, while Garcia will have to confront the shadow cast by his previous presidency.

"After everything else we've gone through in this country, that [a second Garcia administration] would really take the cake," says Juana Cecilia Cock Vizcarra, a Lima housewife and mother of six who supports Toledo.

Lima high school history teacher Angela Gonzalez says it was the youth vote that more than anything else denied Toledo a first-round victory, and she could be right. Voters in the 18-26 age group make up nearly 30 percent of Peru's electorate, and exit polls showed Garcia did especially well with them. She says Toledo supporters will have to get busy now "teaching the youth" about Garcia's past - an idea that apparently isn't lost on Toledo. In a post-vote press conference, he said, "We have a strategy [for winning the second round].... I don't think my people have amnesia."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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