Leftist surge

Published : May 05, 2006 00:00 IST

Former Army commander Ollanto Humala, a leftist, finishes well ahead of others in the first round of Peru's presidential election.

FROM all indications, in a short time Peru will be added to the growing list of Latin American democracies opting for left-leaning governments. In the elections held in the second week of April, a self-professed "anti-imperialist fighter" got the largest number of votes. Retired Army commander Ollanto Humala is now the clear front-runner for the presidency, having secured more than 30 per cent of the votes. Vying for the second spot is another leftist politician, Alan Garcia, a former President. Barring last-minute surprises, he is expected to maintain his position. Expected to emerge as a close third is Lourdes Floures, the conservative candidate.

The final election results will be announced in late April once votes from the remote Amazon regions come in. However, with more than 90 per cent of votes counted, most experts predict that the final face-off will be between Humala and Garcia. Because most of the votes to be counted will come from rural areas, the two front-runners will share them. Floures' supporters are mainly confined to the urban areas. A final round will be held in late May or early June if none of the candidates gets more than 50 per cent of the votes.

Until recently, Floures, the right-wing candidate favoured by Washington, was leading in opinion polls. Some commentators had even hailed her as Peru's first woman President. Pollsters predicted that even in the event of a final-round contest with Humala, she had a good chance of winning.

The surprise result from the first round virtually guarantees that Peru, like Bolivia and Venezuela, will chart out a course opposed to the "Washington consensus" favoured by Western financial institutions.

Humala, on the campaign trail, promised to nationalise the country's mining industry and other "strategic sectors" of its economy. Peru is endowed with a variety of mineral resources for which demand in the world market is rising by the day. According to a recent international survey, Peru is the number one country in the world in terms of mining potential. Peru is the world's third largest copper producer and fifth largest gold producer. Oil and gas deposits are quite bountiful. However, the country, with a population of around 25 million, is burdened with a poverty rate of over 50 per cent.

Foreign companies engaged in exploiting the country's resources have been making massive profits and giving the Peruvian exchequer precious little in return. During the presidency of Alberto Fujimori, the government gave generous tax concessions and investment benefits to Western multinationals in a bid to attract foreign investment.

Humala has said that if elected he would not sign the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States. Instead, he has vowed to "beat globalisation". The lame-duck government of Alejandro Toledo has made a commitment to Washington to sign the FTA before it demits office. Toledo hopes that the newly elected parliament will have enough members supporting the agreement. The parliament will convene before the second round of elections. Many small parties are represented in the new legislature, including Fujimori's party, the Alliance for the Future. This party is expected to get approximately 15 seats in the 120-member legislature. Toledo, a former World Bank economist, has made no secret of his belief that neo-liberalism is the cure-all for Peru's ills.

The 42-year-old Humala has chosen to portray himself as the Hugo Chavez of Peru. He has praised the radical reforms being undertaken in Venezuela under President Chavez and Bolivia under the newly elected President Evo Morales, a leftist. Chavez has expressed his support for Humala, describing him "as the voice of Peru's downtrodden". Like Morales, Humala is a staunch opponent of the U.S. government's coca eradication programme. Since the days of the Incas, Peruvians have traditionally used coca for religious rites and made "tea" out of its leaf. Like Chavez, Humala also participated in a coup attempt, his against President Fujimori in 2000. A brother of his, also a military officer, staged a short-lived uprising in 2004 against Toledo. He is in jail. Humala has cut off all contacts with him and his mother, who had controversially called for the jailing of homosexuals, saying that they spread promiscuity on the streets of Lima, the capital. Humala's father, Isaac, is a retired lawyer who is known for his radical views: he has affirmed that native Indians are racially superior to their white conquerors. He gave his son the name that in the native Quechua language means "the warrior who sees all".

Humala projects himself as an "outsider" who does not belong to any of the traditional parties that have long dominated Peruvian politics. He has derived a lot of political mileage from the fact that he is not a member of the entrenched white elite, which has led the government for centuries. The majority of Peru's population consists of people of indigenous descent and mestizos (mixed descent). When Humala cast his vote in a rich Lima suburb, a crowd of wealthy Peruvians pelted him with rubbish. Another role model for Humala is the former President of Peru, General Juan Velasco. Velasco, who ruled from 1968 to 1975, was a leftist at a time when right-wing authoritarian rulers dotted the Latin American political landscape.

Garcia, on the other hand, has consciously tried to play down the radical image he acquired during the 1970s and 1980s. Anti-imperialist rhetoric, which was his trademark in the olden days, has been conspicuously absent in his campaign trail. He has run on a populist platform. His campaign managers are confident that in the run-off, he will be able to attract many Peruvians who voted for Floures and candidates of small parties in the first round. It is well known that there is no love lost between Garcia and Floures. In the last election as well, Garcia narrowly pipped Floures for the runner-up position.

Garcia was President of Peru from 1985 to 1990, a period characterised by hyperinflation and widespread violence. Guerillas of the Maoist Sendero Luminiso (Shining Path) rampaged at will through the capital, Lima and other parts of the country. Many Peruvians prefer to forget that period. Garcia was only 36 years old when he first became President.

Garcia's American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA), being an old and established party, is comparatively well organised. He put up retired army officers and prominent personalities for the parliamentary elections, which were held concurrently with the first round of the presidential polls.

A Garcia-Humala run-off has already set off alarm bells in Washington and the international financial community. Washington seems to be backing Garcia, considering him the lesser of the two evils. Garcia has tentatively supported Peru's FTA with the U.S. and is not too critical about International Monetary Fund/World Bank policies today. The last thing Washington needs is an acolyte of Chavez heading another government in the region.

Humala has pledged to unite Peru in an "alternative model to this neo-liberal model". He has explicitly stated on many occasions that if he is elected, Peru will align itself with the left-wing governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina.

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