Peru presidential runoff could determine whether country joins leftist shift |

Peru presidential runoff could determine whether country joins leftist shift

LIMA, Peru – A polarized Peru voted Sunday in a presidential runoff deciding whether the Andean country tilts into Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s orbit or returns to office a moderate leftist with a disastrous political legacy who vows to maintain free-market policies.Voters chose between the charismatic Alan Garcia, whose 1985-1990 presidency left Peru in economic ruin, and Ollanta Humala, a fiery nationalist who pledged to punish a corrupt political establishment and redistribute wealth to the poor Indian and mixed-race majority.Two exit polls issued when polls closed gave Garcia the lead.He had 54.9 percent to Humala’s 45.1 percent in Datum International’s survey based on 27,476 interviews. However, the margin of error was 4.9 percentage points, meaning the candidates were in a statistical dead heat.The other poll, by Apoyo, gave Garcia 52.8 percent to 47.2 percent for Humala. It was based on some 20,000 interviews and had a margin of error of about 5 percentage points.The bitterly fought election between the top finishers in an April election of 20 candidates saw street violence and virulent exchanges of slurs, including from Chavez, who exacerbated the ill will by vigorously endorsing Humala and calling Garcia a crook.At one point, Garcia was hit in the face by an egg, leaving a nasty bruise. The attack, in the highland city of Cuzco, a stronghold for Humala, was followed hours later by a shootout involving supporters of the two rivals.In the final days of campaigning, election observers from the Organization of American States urged both sides to tone down the rhetoric and avoid violence.Humala, a retired military man like Chavez, spooked upper- and middle-class Peruvians by attacking the established parties as corrupt and unresponsive to the needs of the poor. He vowed to write a new constitution stripping the parties of power.Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s most famous novelist and a staunch critic of Garcia, called Humala a dangerous autocrat.”What is at stake in Peru is whether the democracy we have, with all its imperfections, is going to survive or is going to disappear once again and be replaced by a military and nationalist dictator, which is what would happen if Mr. Humala wins,” said Vargas Llosa, who made an unsuccessful bid to succeed Garcia in 1990.A win by Humala, a 43-year-old political newcomer, could help Chavez extend his “anti-imperialist” influence in the region after gaining a loyal ally with the December election of Evo Morales as Bolivia’s president.Garcia, 57, adroitly turned the race into a referendum on Chavez, depicting Humala as an aspiring despot who would fall into lockstep with the Venezuelan’s populist economics and Cuba-friendly anti-Americanism.He labeled Chavez, who is rolling in petrodollars from record-high oil prices, as “a midget dictator with a big wallet.” Chavez responded by calling Garcia “a genuine thief, a demagogue, a liar.”Before voting, Garcia met with reporters over breakfast, urging voters to reject Chavez’s interference in Peru’s election.”Not only are we defining our way of life, but also putting a roadblock in front of the expansion of a country that, because it has more wealth, wants to export its model,” he said. “I believe that Peru has the right to choose its own path and its own model.”Humala’s radical, anti-establishment rhetoric – he vowed to follow the lead of Chavez and Morales by imposing higher taxes on foreign companies that exploit the nation’s natural resources – resonated among Peru’s poor, the majority of them dark-skinned mestizos.Peru’s poor feel they have not benefited from economic growth averaging 5.5 percent annually over the past four years, since the proportion of the population living in poverty dropped just two percentage points to 52 percent.”We have faith we can develop a nation without discrimination, a society where our young people have a future,” a smiling Humala told reporters after casting his ballot, avoiding the incendiary rhetoric that marked much of his campaign.Garcia sought to overcome nightmarish memories of his earlier presidency, with its raging inflation, political violence and long lines for food. He said he was aware some Peruvians “will hold their noses” when they voted for him as “the lesser of two evils,” but said he was determined not to repeat the errors he made as a young president.As polls stations opened, Carlos Chavez Rios, a municipal street sweeper whose wrinkled face appeared much older than his 69 years, said he was willing to give Garcia a second chance.”Alan Garcia made mistakes when he was young. We all make mistakes when we’re young. He’s mature now and has more experience,” he said, broom in hand, outside a voting station in a drab working-class district.But Andres Garcia, a 66-year-old taxi driver, said he cast his ballot for Humala “so that there is a change.”A military man is tough. There is too much corruption. Let’s hope he can impose order,” Garcia said. “If Ollanta can’t change this, no one can change it.”Vail, Colorado

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