Peru's presidential election heads to a runoff

Ollanta Humala led Monday, but without an outright majority will be forced into a second round.

The polls have closed and the ballots are soon to be all counted, but it looks like Peruvians will have to wait at least a month until they know who their next president will be.

At press time Monday, Ollanta Humala, a retired army lieutenant colonel with great appeal among the country's indigenous and mixed race poor, was holding a slim lead over his rivals.

With 67.3 percent of votes counted, Mr. Humala was ahead with 28.7 percent, Peru's election authority said Monday. Conservative congresswoman Lourdes Flores was second with 25.8 percent, while Alan Garcia, a left-center former president was right behind her with 25.1 percent.

An unofficial vote sample from the respected election watchdog group Transparencia gave Humala 29.9 percent of the vote, with Flores barely edging Garcia with a 24.4 percent to 24.3 percent, respectively. The projection was based on results from 928 voting tables and had an error margin of less than 1 percent.

If early results and vote samples hold, it will mean no single candidate has managed to secure a majority of the votes needed for an outright victory, and the elections will go to a runoff between the top two vote-getters in late May or early June.

Endorsed by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and fond of the same rhetoric as Bolivia's leftist leader Evo Morales, Humala has pledged to renegotiate the contracts of foreign mining and oil companies in the country, rewrite the Constitution to take away powers from the ruling classes, and legalize farming of coca, the plant used to make cocaine. He has also promised to bring education, health care, and potable water to the rural areas.

Before voting on Sunday he said his countrymen and women now had a chance to "begin the nation's great transformation." But the extent of that transformation worries many here and in Washington. Humala's detractors say he's a dangerous retrograde with a questionable human right's record, undemocratic tendencies, and unclear intentions.

Humala has faced allegations of human rights abuses and killings, which he denies, as an Army commander when Peru fought the Shining Path insurgency of the 1980s and early 1990s.

"His associates are ominous," says Michael Shifter, vice president of the InterAmerican Dialogue, a think tank in Washington, DC. "An Humala presidency could increase ethnic divisions and resentments, and restore the political profile and position of the armed forces, returning the country to previous periods of military ascendancy."

A Flores presidency would have its own problems, says Mr. Shifter. A lawyer who supports the free trade deal brokered with the US and increased foreign investment, Flores is portrayed by her detractors as a defender of Lima's political and economic elite.

"Unless Flores embarks on a course of thoroughgoing social reform aimed at addressing the country's exclusion and inequality, political unrest could mount during her presidency ... politics as usual is not a recipe for stability now," he says.

Mr. Garcia, who won the presidency in 1985 at age 36, insisted Monday that an internal tally had him in second place. But Flores, addressing her supporters in Lima, asked Garcia to "have the greatness" to recognize he's been knocked out of the race.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa, a Latin America expert at the Independent Institute, a California-based public policy think tank, says its unclear whether Garcia and Lourdes supporters will join forces against Humala in a second round.

"It's complicated and a very delicate situation for both, especially Garcia," says Vargas Llosa. "Garcia might want to throw his weight behind Lourdes - for the sake of democracy - but he cannot afford to endorse her and not be obeyed by his people. He risks a rebellion against him by a base with deep hatred of the political classes. This would delegitimize him forever. So, I don't foresee a strong public endorsement."

Voting is obligatory in Peru, and anyone between the ages of 18 and 70 who does not do so is fined the equivalent of $40. The average Peruvian monthly salary, according to government statistics, is $65.

In the bleak settlement of Villa El Salvador, sprawled among the sand dunes outside Lima, one poor Peruvian after another rolls their eyes when asked who will make the best next president, admitting if it were not for the fine, they would not bother.

"I feel like I am juggling three balls, and whichever one I happen to catch is the one I will vote for," says Juan Pablo Irrarazabal, an unemployed window frame maker, sidestepping plastic bags and fruit rinds blowing around his straw hut.

"The candidates come here and make us mountains of promises," says Mr. Irrarazabal. "And we always pray one of them, once elected, might actually come back and fulfill those promises. But they never do."

Ms. Harman is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.

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