Primer: Peru's Presidential Election Peru seems poised to choose a leftist president in Sunday's election. If so, it would become the latest Latin American nation to make Washington nervous about the political direction of the region.
NPR logo Primer: Peru's Presidential Election

Primer: Peru's Presidential Election

Presidential front-runner Ollanta Humala, seen here at a rally, has promised a "revolution" for Peru's poor by putting the economy in state hands. Reuters hide caption

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Lourdes Flores (left), a conservative seeking to become Peru's first woman president, greets supporters during a rally north of Lima. Reuters hide caption

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Former Peruvian president Alan Garcia, who hopes to return to the country's top job, smiles during a press conference in Lima. Reuters hide caption

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Peru seems poised to choose a leftist president in Sunday's election. If so, it would become the latest Latin American nation to make Washington nervous about the political direction of the region.

First there was Venezuela, whose president, Hugo Chavez, is known for his anti-American rhetoric. He's using his country's oil riches to buy the goodwill of his countrymen and of his Latin American neighbors -- and to blunt the Bush administration's regional influence.

Then came Bolivia, where President Evo Morales, a socialist and former coca grower, won a landslide victory in December. Morales has been in office just two months, and although he hasn't instituted any major economic reforms yet, a picture of Che Guevara already hangs in the presidential palace.

Now, Peru's politics also appear to be taking a leftward shift. Most polls indicate that the presidential front-runner is Ollanta Humala, a retired army officer whose rhetoric is a mix of populism and nationalism. Like Chavez and Morales, Humala's core supporters are the country's poor.

Humala, 43, is an authoritarian in the mold of past military leaders whose periods of rule have alternated with democracy in Peru. He led a failed coup against former President Alberto Fujimori in 2000. He has been enthusiastically endorsed by Venezuela's Chavez.

If elected, Humala says he would impose new taxes on the multinational mining companies that operate in Peru. (Mining investments totaled $1 billion in 2005, making it a key component of Peru's $75 billion economy.) He also wants to renegotiate oil and gas contracts. That has foreign investors jittery.

Humala has promised to redistribute wealth. He cites as a hero another leftist military leader from Peru's past, Gen. Juan Velasco Alvarado, who seized power in 1968 and ruled through 1975. During his dictatorial regime, Alvarado nationalized many industries, including banking, oil and the media, and introduced sweeping land reforms.

Humala's chief rival on Sunday is Lourdes Flores, 46, a former congresswoman. A win would make Flores Peru's first female president, and the second woman elected to lead a Latin American nation this year, after Chile's Michelle Bachelet (whose politics can be described as center-left).

The leader of the National Unity coalition, the conservative Flores espouses free trade -- including a free-trade treaty with the United States -- and market liberalization policies. She has the backing of Peru's major business groups, but she is struggling to overcome her image among the working class as a traditional politician. Though Flores has promised to improve the country's shoddy schools and health services, many of the poor see her as the candidate of the elite. She ran unsuccessfully for president in 2001, when the country's business interests chose to throw their support behind current President Alejandro Toledo.

Running third in most polls -- but still in contention -- is former president Alan Garcia, the leader of the Peruvian Aprista Party (PAP). Just 35 years old when he was first elected in 1985, Garcia was a charismatic populist whose policies had disastrous consequences. He nationalized a U.S. oil company, suspended most foreign debt payments and attempted to nationalize banking and insurance industries. His presidency was marked by hyperinflation and by violent attacks from the Maoist guerrilla group Shining Path. When his term ended in 1990, Peru's economy was left reeling.

Garcia was followed in office by Fujimori, an academic who helped return Peru to economic stability but also established a decade of autocratic rule. Fujimori fled the country in 2000 amid a corruption scandal. In 2001, Garcia returned to Peru from eight years of self-imposed exile. He ran for president and made a strong showing, making it to a runoff vote that he lost to Toledo.

If no candidate wins a clear majority in Sunday's vote, the two top vote-getters will run against each other in a runoff vote in May.