Three candidates were locked in a tight presidential election Sunday, with Peruvians so polarized over the candidacy of a nationalistic former army officer that he was taunted by hundreds of opponents as he cast his ballot.
Exit polls and early official results indicated an extremely close race, with a slight lead for Ollanta Humala, the former army officer. None of the candidates was expected to get more than 50 percent of the vote, and a runoff between the two top finishers was likely in late May or early June.
A victory for Humala, a political newcomer, could tilt this Andean nation leftward toward Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. His main challengers — Alan Garcia, a former president, and Lourdes Flores, a former congresswoman — generally favor the free-market policies that have generated strong growth but little improvement in the lives of poor Peruvians.
With 30 percent of the vote counted, Humala had 27.6 percent, Flores had 26.7 percent and Garcia had 25.7 percent.
A 43-year-old populist, Humala has raised fears among many middle- and upper-class Peruvians by identifying with Chavez, Venezuela’s militantly anti-U.S. president.
Trapped at polling station
Hundreds of protesters trapped the former army lieutenant colonel and his wife for nearly an hour at their Lima polling station with chants of “Assassin” and “You’re the same as Chavez.” A few threw rocks.
After voting, Humala and his wife were escorted to a car by riot police with clear plastic shields. Lloyd Axworthy, the former Canadian foreign minister heading an international observer team, accompanied the couple.
“We were the victims of a fascist act,” Humala said later at a news conference. He said Flores and Garcia “have sown hate.”
The “assassin” chants were an apparent reference to allegations that Humala committed human rights abuses in 1992 as the commander of a counterinsurgency base in Peru’s eastern jungle. He denies any wrongdoing.
Humala, a law-and-order nationalist, has heavy support among Peru’s poor, who feel bypassed by the country’s recent strong economic growth. Most of the poor live in Andean mountain communities, where the Quechua-speaking inhabitants have suffered centuries of racial and ethnic discrimination by Peru’s European-descended elite.
Exit polls showed Humala with overwhelming leads in those areas, which include Ayacucho, a mountain state that gave birth to the extreme-left Shining Path guerrillas a quarter-century ago.
The Apoyo and Datum exit polls released at the end of voting showed Humala with more than 29 percent of the vote overall; both Garcia and Flores had 24 percent — meaning the three are running even, given the polls’ margins of error of 4-5 percentage points.
Humala, a law-and-order nationalist, said voters had a chance to “begin the nation’s great transformation.” He has heavy support among Peru’s poor, who feel bypassed by the country’s recent strong economic growth.
His image as a stern military man who has arrived to fight crime and punish the corrupt has been a powerful factor.
“I’m voting for Ollanta because he’ll make it safer and get rid of the corrupt,” said Nancy Perez Malpartida, a 45-year-old fruit vendor. “What’s lacking here is a strong hand to battle street crime. With no police around, we have no way to defend ourselves.”
Humala has pledged to favor Peruvian-owned businesses over foreign investors, raise taxes on foreign companies, spend more on the poor and rewrite Peru’s constitution to strip power from a political class widely viewed as corrupt.
He openly admires the 1968-75 leftist dictatorship of Gen. Juan Velasco, who took over Peru’s media, implemented a largely failed agrarian reform and forged close ties with the Soviet Union.
Garcia, 56, has warned that electing Humala would be launching Peru “into a void,” and President Alejandro Toledo urged Peruvians in a televised speech Saturday not to elect someone who would bring “the authoritarianism and instability that we’ve known in the past.”
The comment by Toledo, who by law cannot run for a second consecutive term, led Humala to complain that it was directed against him and that it violated campaign regulations requiring government neutrality.
Flores, 46, is the first woman to make a serious run for Peru’s presidency.
A maternal figure in a country where women are thought of as more honest, Flores hopes to replicate the triumph of Michelle Bachelet, the socialist who was elected as neighboring Chile’s first female president in December.
Reina Malca Villoslaba, a 29-year-old housewife waiting to vote in the working-class district of Comas, said Flores “would be a good president. Men have failed, and hopefully we would progress with her.”
Garcia, leader of the center-left Aprista party, was called “Latin America’s Kennedy” in 1985 when he became the region’s youngest president. His term ended with Peru’s economy in shambles.
He paints himself as having matured and says his mismanagement of the government 20 years ago, leading to more than 7,000 percent annual inflation, was due largely to a corrosive cocktail of youth and power that went to his head.
Jorge Guerrero, a 55-year-old mechanic, said he was voting for Garcia “because he has an organized party and people who are prepared to govern. The other candidates like Ollanta are unprepared, and Lourdes serves the rich.”