LIMA, Peru – Voters in Peru's presidential elections will choose Sunday between pro-business promises of stability and populist pledges to redistribute wealth and bring justice to the underdog.
Ollanta Humala, a former army officer who has pledged to divert money from foreign companies to the poor, faces tough competition in his bid to join the growing ranks of left-wing Latin American leaders critical of U.S. policies.
Humala, who has worried Washington with opposition to U.S.-financed eradication of Peru's coca crop, the raw material for cocaine, will probably not win enough votes to avoid a runoff. He could face Lourdes Flores, a free-market supporter and the first woman to make a serious run for Peru's presidency, or the center-left candidate Alan Garcia, who also has promised greater equality for the poor.
In his final campaign rally Thursday night in Arequipa, his southern Andean stronghold, Humala vowed to take down the "fascist dictatorship of the economically powerful," drawing a roar from his supporters, most of them from his base of dark-skinned mestizos.
Humala, who saw his lead in opinion polls disappear in the week before the election, is enthusiastically endorsed by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, a strident critic of the U.S. who is seeking to extend his influence after gaining an ally in Bolivia with Evo Morales' December presidential victory.
He openly admires the 1968-75 leftist dictatorship of Gen. Juan Velasco, who took over Peru's media, implemented a largely failed agrarian reform that expropriated land from wealthy Peruvians and forged close ties with the former Soviet Union.
International investors and Peru's middle and upper classes are frightened by Humala's rhetoric, as are many working-class Peruvians with something to lose, such as a job, a small shop or a trade.
Yet Humala has captured sympathy among the half of the population that lives on the margins in this Andean nation of 28 million, without access to decent schools, health care or potable water. The poor and dispossessed, especially in rural areas, have responded to his message that the political establishment is greedy and corrupt.
The novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has appealed to his countrymen to reject Humala, urging them "not to be so blind, so amnesiac, so foolish" as to elect another authoritarian leader six years after Alberto Fujimori's autocratic decade-long presidency collapsed.
"Maintain democracy or go to dictatorship. That is what is at play in these elections," Vargas Llosa, who lost to Fujimori in 1990 and lives most of the year in Spain, told reporters during a visit in late March.
No candidate in the field of 20 was expected to win 50 percent of the vote Sunday, meaning a late May or early June runoff between the top two finishers was likely.
Humala, a 43-year-old former lieutenant colonel, burst onto the political scene when he led a small bloodless military rebellion in 2000 in an isolated mountain region a month before Fujimori's corruption-riddled government fell.
Preaching a nationalist message of Peruvians first, he has pledged to give preference to Peruvian-owned businesses over foreign investors, impose higher taxes on foreign companies and spend the money on the poor.
"Ollanta is the one who is saying it like it is, straight out. Everyone should get the same treatment. Everyone should pay his taxes and that means the factory owner, too, not just the guy who has a little shop," said Juan Carlos Rivas, a 48-year-old shoe shiner in Lima's San Isidro banking district.
Still, Flores and Garcia are not to be discounted.
Garcia, 56, can hold a crowd spellbound as he struts across a stage and booms a message of social justice. Leader of the center-left Aprista party, Garcia insists he alone can stop the "leap into the dark" — the threat of chaos and autocratic government that he says Humala poses.
He paints himself as having matured since a presidency 20 years ago that led to inflation of more than 7,000 percent a year.
Flores, 46, a pro-business former congresswoman in her second run for the presidency, has hit hard at Humala in the campaign's final days, warning that he "is a dangerous option for democracy with his manifestly violent discourse."
She has heavy support among women and also young people, who view her as the best option to generate investment and create jobs.
In her closing campaign rally Thursday night, Flores drew an ovation when she said she was "conscious of the immense responsibility on my shoulders" if she becomes Peru's first woman president: "I say to young women and older women that I will not let you down."