A gruff, polarizing retired army officer who courted Peru’s poor and terrified its rich with promises to distribute the country’s wealth more fairly appeared on Monday to be headed for a presidential runoff.
The 43-year-old military man, Ollanta Humala, called on “all Peruvians” after Sunday’s vote to “join up with this movement to transform Peru.”
But a close battle for second place left unanswered whom Humala would likely face in the second round — pro-business former congresswoman Lourdes Flores or Alan Garcia, a center-left ex-president.
With 80.3 percent of the votes tallied, Humala had 30.3 percent compared to 24.9 percent for Garcia and 24 percent for Flores.
Since no single candidate won a majority, the top two finishers will meet in late May or early June in a runoff.
A victory by Humala could tilt this Andean nation leftward. Flores and Garcia vow to generally maintain free-market policies that have generated economic growth averaging 5.5 percent the past four years but haven’t created enough jobs for poor Peruvians.
The country’s poverty level hovers just above 50 percent.
Humala has instilled fear, especially among Peru’s middle and upper classes, by identifying with Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s militantly anti-U.S. president.
When he and his wife went to vote in an upper-class district on Sunday, hundreds of hostile protesters trapped them for nearly an hour and taunted them with chants of “Assassin” and “You’re the same as Chavez.” A few threw rocks.
Many Peruvians resent Humala’s populist campaign as opportunistic and incendiary— Humala belongs to a high-profile mestizo clan of avowed racists who believe Peru’s “copper-colored” majority should have superior status over whites. And though he insists he does not share his relatives’ views, they have benefited him nevertheless.
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, charges he denies.
Humala’s image as a stern military man who will fight crime and punish the corrupt has been a powerful factor in his swift public rise. So have his promises to raise taxes on foreign companies, spend more on the poor and rewrite Peru’s constitution to strip power from what he last week called “a fascist dictatorship of the economically powerful.”
Humala openly admires the 1968-75 leftist dictatorship of Gen. Juan Velasco, who took over Peru’s media and expropriated land from wealthy Peruvians as part of a largely agrarian reform.
Humala’s fomenting of an indigenous backlash against descendants of Peru’s European conquistadors galvanized the same sort of support that Evo Morales amassed in successfully winning election in December as Bolivia’s first Indian president.
“In a country where most citizens suffer from racism, elections become an opportunity for them to take revenge,” said human rights activist Wilfredo Ardito.
The 56-year-old Garcia, whose 1985-90 administration ended with a bloody insurgency and the economy in shambles, has warned that to embrace Humala would be to launch Peru “into a void.”
But he was more preoccupied after Sunday’s vote with the 46-year-old Flores, the first woman to make a serious run for Peru’s presidency.