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.

Karel Navarro/AP
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.

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.

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.

For many, this shows that leftist centrism has nudged out the far-left candidates that were sweeping polls early in the decade, largely supported by Chávez. Luis Alberto López Rafaschieri, a political consultant and blogger in Venezuela, says that with the inauguration of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua in 2007 came the last "imitator" of Chávez. Subsequent candidates have pledged their centrist ethos.

Mr. López Rafaschieri says that while Chávez's rhetoric is attractive, inflation, crime, and power shortages at home have meant that in practice his popularity suffers. Chávez's regional influence has also waned as petrodollars have run short.

Broad range of views

In broad terms, the region is led by two lefts: a centrist one and the more radical one. But between those extremes are so many different shades that it is hard to pigeonhole any of them. That diversity, institutionalized in the São Paulo Forum, a conference of 80 left-leaning political parties and movements from Latin America and the Caribbean, was on full display this month in Managua, Nicaragua, for the group's 17th congress. Forum members control 11 governments in the region, and hope to pick up Peru after June 5.

But they aren't an easily labeled group. This year's congress brought together democratic progressives such as Lula, bitter antiestablishment socialists such as the Honduran resistance, and old-guard rulers such as Mr. Ortega.

If Humala were to be at the São Paulo forum, many Peruvians are not sure at which table he would sit. Some suspect that his remake into a centrist is an electoral ploy only used to appeal to voters.

But no matter where on the spectrum Humala may fall, Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., says that economic growth in the country leaves him less space to employ an ideological transformation as happened in Venezuela.

"When Chávez came in, Venezuela had been a disaster. There had been two lost decades," says Mr. Shifter. "Whoever wins in Peru will inherit a country that is institutionally weak, but with an economy that has been very dynamic. That puts limits on what can you do."

-- Tim Rogers contributed from Managua, Nicaragua.

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