Ex-army officer with a dark past tops poll in Peru

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When Peru's presidential election campaign kicked off, disillusioned voters fed up with greedy politicians and empty promises complained there was no one to vote for. Bored by the same old faces, they were hoping for a political outsider with fresh vision and bold ideas.

Ollanta Humala, a maverick former army officer promising to put a stop to rule by powerful elites seemed just the ticket. Despite a murky past, including allegations of human rights abuses as a military commander a decade ago, Mr Humala's candidacy has gone from strength to strength and he is now the man to beat in Sunday's election. But his tough talk and nationalistic ideas send shivers through many Peruvians and investors, who fear he is a dictator in disguise.

Mr Humala, 42, sports a red "Love for Peru" T-shirt on the campaign trail, where he reminisces about his days in the army and the need for moral values. He thumps out a message akin to Hugo Chavez's recipes for social revolution in Venezuela or Evo Morales' pledges to share Bolivia's mineral riches with the people.

Mr Humala's vow to raise taxes on the foreign energy and mining companies whose output is the backbone of Peru's economy, industrialise production of the coca leaf in what is already the world's second-biggest cocaine producer, and scrap a draft US free-trade agreement that some farmers fear will ruin them, have struck a chord with ordinary people in a country where half the population scrapes a living on barely more than a dollar a day.

"What we've got now is a dictatorship, but of the rich. What we want is equal conditions," said Aristides Ferrer, a 48-year-old lawyer with a red "Ollanta" headband at Mr Humala's final rally in Lima before the vote.

Despite a government plan that is thin on detail, the latest poll yesterday put Mr Humala comfortably ahead with pro-business lawyer Lourdes Flores in a statistical tie for second place with former President Alan Garcia. However, few bet on Mr Humala winning more than the 50 per cent support required to avoid a run-off in May and even if he does eventually win, he would be likely to face a deeply divided Congress.

Mr Humala, who first came to prominence when he and his brother led a failed uprising against ex-President Alberto Fujimori in 2000, identifies with Mr Chavez, a fellow former soldier who once led a failed coup and now preaches a fiery mix of patriotism and anti-US invective. Championing Peru's indigenous masses, Mr Humala has vowed to rewrite the constitution and "refound" the nation, and counts himself among a "family" of South American leaders disillusioned with IMF-prescribed policies they say have failed the region.

"He's going to govern with the military, close Congress, have a policy of confrontation with Washington, permit free cultivation of coca and he won't sign the free-trade pact. He'll persecute the press... it'll be a dictatorship, there's no doubt about it," said the former interior minister Fernando Rospigliosi.

Mr Humala has sidestepped allegations of involvement in murder and torture while fighting leftist rebels in the 1990s. He has distanced himself from another uprising by his brother, now in jail, as well as from the extreme views of his ultra-nationalist parents, who have called for the amnesty of brutal rebel leaders and shooting of homosexuals.

Peru's economy grew nearly 7 per cent last year, fuelled by an export boom and record prices for Peru's top commodities, including copper and gold, but unemployment remains stubbornly high. People living in shanty towns peddling cheap Chinese toys and pirated DVDs on Lima's traffic-choked streets, or farming in primitive rural villages, have seen little improvement in their living standards. Mr Humala's message is music to their ears.

Mr Humala has cashed in on the disillusionment surrounding politicians, in a country that has lurched from dictatorship in the 1970s and rebel wars and hyperinflation in the 1980s, to violence, corruption and state repression in the 1990s and broken promises since.

Moreover, his two rivals are far from being consensus candidates.

Though Ms Flores is seen as capable and clean, she has struggled to shed an image of being a stooge of Peru's conservative, rich white elite, while Mr Garcia's record in office in the 1980s - when he presided over annual inflation of more than 7,000 per cent - has permanently alienated a hard core of voters.

Latin leaders the US loves to hate


The Venezuelan president, elected in 1998, emerged as a modern-day incarnation of guerrilla leader Che Guevara. Mr Chavez, who has described President Bush as "mentally ill", has brought in land reforms and tougher rules for transnational companies in Venezuela, the world's fourth-largest oil exporter.


Bolivia's first indigenous president. A coca leaf-grower from an impoverished family, he was elected last year and is an admirer of both President Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro. The trio calls itself the "axis of good". During gas wars in his country he became a hero of the movement opposed to the privatisation of natural resources.

Javier Espinoza