Peru has one of the fastest-growing economies in the Americas, healthy international reserves and record high exports. Conventional wisdom would suggest that voters in the South American nation would be reluctant to rock the boat.
Yet, if pollsters are right, the nation of 29 million will overwhelmingly vote for a presidential candidate on Sunday who has vowed to shake-up the economy and embark on ambitious reforms.
Ollanta Humala, 48, a former soldier whose ties to Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez sank his presidential aspirations in 2006, is expected to win almost 30 percent of the vote and coast into the second round, according to recent polls.
It’s less clear who he will face in the June run-off. Just a few weeks ago, former President Alejandro Toledo seemed to have an unassailable lead. But now, he’s in a dead heat with two other candidates for second place.
Along with Toledo are former Prime Minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori.
According to two polls publicized by Reuters on Thursday, Fujimori has a slight edge in the race for second place.
From beyond its borders, Peru’s breakneck growth — it’s expected to surge 7 percent this year — is a matter of envy. But inside the country, many feel left out of the boom, said Manuel Torrado, president of the board of the Datum polling firm.
Only 5 percent of the population say they would keep the current economic model, and a full 51 percent say they want a dramatic change, according to Datum figures.
Looking at the macroeconomic indicators “Peru has never been as well off as it is now,” Torrado said. But only 26 percent of the population feel like their lot has improved.
“That helps explain Humala’s popularity,” he said.
Humala has cast himself as a champion of the poor patterned on Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
“He’s promising to keep stability and at the same time has ambitious social and development plans that would require more spending. And the question will be how does he reconcile those two things,” said Erasto Almeida, a Latin America analyst with the Eurasia Group. “I think there could be a kind of negative stirring around his policies but I don’t think he will go down the Hugo Chávez path.”
But some in Peru aren’t so sure. While Humala has been burnishing his moderate credentials, some still see him as the brash and charismatic soldier who campaigned in a red T-shirt in 2006 and sought Chávez’s support until it became clear that the Venezuelan president was a liability.
Fernando Aguirre, 63, is a tow-truck driver in the mining town of Huaraz. Many of his friends and colleagues are voting for Humala, but he said he’s voting for Kuczynski.
“The country is finally growing and we can really feel it,” Aguirre said. “If Ollanta comes in, who knows what he’ll do.”
Aguirre said he was voting for the 73-year-old former prime minister because he is experienced and “doesn’t have as many reasons to steal as a younger person.”
Investors are also jittery about Humala. As his poll numbers have increased, the country’s stock, bond and foreign-exchange markets have taken a beating amid fears he might raise taxes on corporations and put up roadblocks to the country’s booming mining industry.
Humala may produce economic unease, but he’s also seen as the right man to tackle another pressing issue in Peru — crime. Drug trafficking is booming, gun-crimes are up and the Shining Path guerrillas — beaten into submission under the Fujimori administration — are beginning to stage a comeback, according to the Lima-based Ciudad Nuestra think-tank.
According to the group, 11-14 percent of the population think crime and terrorism are country’s most pressing problems. In 2005 only 3 percent thought crime was the top issue. And Datum says insecurity ranks high on the peoples’ list of concerns.
“Because [Humala] was a former officer, people think that someone with his military background can end insecurity and crime,” Torrado said.
Humala has had victory within reach before. In the 2006 race, he made it to the second round only to be battered by accusations that he was a Chávez in the making.
This time he has asked the Venezuelan president and other world leaders to stay out of the race, but Humala’s rivals are eager to keep the Chávez issue alive.
Humala is “a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing,” Fujimori told RPP Radio, suggesting he was a closet Chávista. “I hope the people understand that he is two-faced.”
The polls suggest Humala would lose to Toledo and defeat Kuczynski in a runoff, said Datum’s Torrado. But if he faces Fujimori it could be real toss-up, he said.
Fujimori — who became known as she took on the role of first lady during her parent’s estrangement — appeals to the same rural and poor voter that Humala covets.
But she also carries her father’s baggage. Many fear she would use the presidency to have him released from jail where he is being held for ordering kidnappings and assassinations as he battled the Shining Path.
“The only thing we know is that Humala is going to be in the second round,” Torrado said. “But no one can say what comes next.”