Ex-president and hardliner split Peru in election battle

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The Independent US

Peruvians are to vote in a run-off tomorrow between a former president who left the country in economic tatters and a former army officer who is offering a return to nationalism, after an increasingly bitter election campaign.

Although the nationalist, Ollanta Humala, 43, was comfortably ahead in a first round of voting on 9 April, he has trailed 57-year-old Alan Garcia, Peru's president from 1985 to 1990, ever since, amid increasing alarm that Mr Humala's affinity with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela would mean a return to authoritarian rule in the South American country.

Many commentators still expect Mr Garcia to win, but polls have shown Mr Humala narrowing the gap, leaving tomorrow's race still far from certain. "Garcia hasn't got it in the bag. There could still be surprises," said Fernando Rospigliosi, a political commentator and former interior minister.

He said exaggerated promises by Mr Garcia at the end of his campaign may have provoked more distrust of him by some voters, while Mr Humala's increasingly radical message and tough style appeared to have given him a boost.

Mr Humala, whose power base is in Peru's rural and mountain areas, urged people at his closing rally in the southern city of Cusco on Thursday night to vote for him "without fear and with hope", saying the country was at a crossroads.

He urged voters to pick him and give "a new generation of politicians" the chance to govern - a swipe at Mr Garcia's record.

In turn Mr Garcia, at his final rally in Lima, said he defended democracy and freedom and had learned from the mistakes of his disastrous stint in office, which ended with a chaotic descent into hyperinflation. "I tell all Peruvians - I won't let you down," he said.

More than half of Peru's population lives on a little more than $1 a day and polls show many poor have little faith in any politicians to improve their lives, and prefer an authoritarian leader whom they believe has more chance of getting things done.

But as the stalemate in the first round of voting proved, Peruvian voters are polarised. The memory of former president Alberto Fujimori's iron-clad rule in the 1990s is still fresh, and many have no desire to elect a man like Mr Humala, whom they fear would turn out to be a dictator. Many Peruvians, and business leaders, see Mr Garcia as the lesser evil and say they will do what they once would have considered unthinkable: vote for the social democrat while holding their noses and trying to blot out memories of the food queues, the bid to nationalise the banks, the economic collapse and the corruption charges that characterised Garcia's government two decades ago.

"The truth is that Alan Garcia's government was a disaster ... but I think Ollanta Humala would be worse because the most likely thing is that democracy would disappear with him," Mario Vargas Llosa, the novelist and one-time presidential candidate, told Argentina's Clarin newspaper.

Mr Humala, whose credibility has been hurt by the xenophobic and extreme nationalist views of his family, has shrugged aside allegations that as an army commander in the 1990s, he was involved in murder and torture of leftist rebels. He styles himself a brave radical who will defend the poor and put the state in the driving seat of the economy - something that worries business leaders.

Mr Garcia - a compelling orator commanding Peru's most powerful party, Apra - portrays himself as an experienced statesman. Like Mr Humala, he has also promised to renegotiate a key gas and utilities contracts, to increase taxes on mining companies and to challenge a free-trade pact with the United States.