Published April 09, 2011
LIMA, Peru – Peruvians choosing a new president Sunday were expected to favor an anti-establishment military man who vows to redistribute Peru's mineral wealth — just not with enough votes to avoid a runoff.
The tight battle for second was crucial. None of former army Lt. Col. Ollanta Humala's rivals has expressed similar intentions of shaking up the free market-oriented economic status quo.
Technically tied for second in an election-eve poll were Keiko Fujimori, 35-year-old daughter of the imprisoned former President Alberto Fujimori — whom Peruvians alternately adore and vilify — and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a 72-year-old former World Bank economist and investment banker.
Trailing behind them was Alejandro Toledo, Peru's president from 2001-2006. Pre-election polls showed he would defeat Humala in a second round while Kuczynski and Fujimori would have a harder time.
Humala prevailed in the first round of the 2006 presidential election only to lose a runoff. He has spooked foreign investors by promising a greater state role in the economy and to divert natural gas exports to the domestic market.
That's just fine with Federico Sandoval, a 60-year-old veterinarian in Lima's sprawling lower class Villa El Salvador district. Sandoval said he voted for Humala because the corruption that has long been a hallmark of Peruvian politics — and that many believe worsened under outgoing President Alan Garcia — needs to stop.
"In order to improve the situation there need to be changes and they should be radical," Sandoval said.
Politics in this resource-rich Andean nation have been volatile since the 1980s, when its discredited political parties all but dissolved, and Sunday's vote was the most unpredictable in decades.
With no candidate expected to capture a simple majority, the top two vote-getters will meet in a June 5 runoff.
"The people are very divided," said Luis Tamayo, a 25-year-old engineering student in Villa el Salvador who, like many better-educated Peruvians, voted for Kuczynski.
"What you've got here are older men who are very nationalist, very leftist and are voting for Humala and women who work in the community kitchens who are Fujimoristas," he said.
Keiko Fujimori is running on her father's legacy of delivering essential services to Peru's forgotten backwaters. She tends to be favored by the most needy in a country of 30 million where one in three live on less than $3 a day and lack running water.
Peru is a top exporter of copper, gold and silver, commodities whose rising prices have helped fuel economic growth averaging 7 percent over the past five years. But it is a growth that has hardly trickled down to the poor.
And although chronic child malnutrition dropped from 25 percent in 2000 to 18 percent last year, Peru still ranks 13th out of 17 countries in the region in terms of citizens' access to social services, according to a World Bank report. The report says 66 percent of Peruvians live in poverty — a third in extreme poverty in the rural highlands where Humala was running strongest.
Humala was preferred by 28 percent of voters in an Ipsos-Apoyo poll done Saturday, followed by Fujimori with 21 percent; Kuczynski with nearly 20 percent; and Toledo with nearly 17 percent. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.6 percentage points.
Kuczynski, a German immigrant's son who was economics and prime minister under Toledo, climbed into contention in the campaign's final weeks as he renounced his dual U.S. citizenship. But his light skin is a liability in a country where the European-descended economic elite is meeting a backlash of resentment from natives long excluded from power.
Analysts say about 11 percent of the electorate was undecided going into Sunday's election — more than in 2006, when Garcia beat Humala, 53 percent to 47 percent.
Humala, 48, surged into the lead in the campaign's final days with promises similar to those of Keiko Fujimori: free nursery school and public education, state-funded school breakfasts and lunches, a big boost in the minimum wage, and pensions for all beginning at age 65.
He says he would respect international treaties and contracts, but many Peruvians don't believe him.
Humala, who launched a bloodless, short-lived revolt against Alberto Fujimori just before the latter fled into exile in 2000, advocates rewriting the constitution, just as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his leftist allies in Bolivia and Ecuador have done.
He says his reason is to make it easier to enact his agenda, not to allow re-election, as Chavez did to perpetuate himself in office.
Fujimori has a rock-solid constituency thanks to her father's defeat of the Maoist-inspired Shining Path insurgency, taming of hyperinflation in the 1990s, and social agenda.
"Because of him we are free. Because of him we're at peace," said Luz Montesino, a 60-year-old bakery owner who voted at a school built during his presidency.
Like other Fujimori voters, Montesino was not bothered by the fact that Alberto Fujimori is now serving a 25-year sentence for corruption and authorizing death-squad killings.
Nor do many Fujimori supporters seem to be concerned by critics' fears that Keiko would pardon her father, and that he'd be calling the shots in her presidency.