Peru's Puzzling Populist

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As much as his political opponents try, it isn't easy to put a finger on Ollanta Humala, the frontrunner heading into Peru's presidential election this Sunday. On the stump, Humala, 43, a retired army lieutenant colonel,is a fiery leftist, telling crowds that he would nationalize strategic industries and veto the recently negotiated free-trade agreement with the U.S., all the while railing against what he calls the "neoliberal economic model."

But in boardrooms and meetings with business groups, Humala is much more conciliatory, promising to respect private property, battle drug trafficking and push for equitable trade pacts with the U.S. and Europe. Indeed, he told TIME in a recent interview that "we are not going to get involved in an ideological conflict with the United States" and that the "new confrontation isn't left versus right, but the harmful effects of globalization being combated by nationalism."

His sharp rhetoric has, perhaps predictably, polarized the campaign in this Andean nation of 27 million along class, ethnic and geographic lines, setting up an ideological battle that no one expected when he first burst on the scene in November. In the latest polls, his support is running around 30%, while his nearest competitors, onetime Congress member Lourdes Flores and former president Alan Garcia, are both at about 25%. If no candidate gets more than 50% there will be runoff between the two top finishers in May.

Humala's seemingly contradictory faces reflect in many ways his colorful, complicated background, and they are the reason many of his critics on both the left and the right still don't entirely trust him. Unlike other like-minded leftist politicians in South America, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and recently elected Evo Morales in Bolivia, Humala doesn't come from humble beginnings. His father, who is the founder of an ultranationalist, neo-Marxist movement that preaches the superiority of indigenous Indian Peruvians over the country's descendants of the Spanish and promotes violence against those lighter-skinned elite, raised his children with dreams of some day taking power.

After attending a top private school in Lima, earning a master's degree in political science and studying for a while in France, Humala has spent virtually his entire working life in the army, an experience that has raised questions about his commitment to human rights and democracy. He is accused of torturing and killing suspected guerrillas during the country's war against terrorism and the Shining Path in the early 1990s — allegations he says are part of a smear campaign — and led a failed uprising against former President Alberto Fujimori in October 2000, only a few weeks before Fujimori resigned and fled the country in a corruption scandal. "There is a dangerous authoritarian project lurking behind Mr. Humala," says Fernando Rospigliosi, a former interior minister."He will be a disaster for Peru's democracy and for its economy, applying models that failed around the region decades ago."

Bizarre remarks from Humala's family have not helped his image. His young brother Antauro, currently in prison for leading an army reservists' attack on a police station last year that killed four officers, said he would put the current President Alejandro Toledo and all 120 members of Congress before a firing squad if he were president. His mother told a local paper late in the campaign that shooting a few homosexuals would reduce immorality in the country.

Humala has done his best to disassociate himself from his family, including another brother who is running as a fringe presidential candidate as the standard bearer of his father's racist movement. And among the half oF Peru's population that lives in poverty — or on less than $2 a day — he is still the favorite. He has successfully painted Flores as the candidate of the rich and of the capital city of Lima, where about one-third of the country's voters live. After leading throughout most of the presidential race, Flores is now ahead only ahead in the capital.

While slamming his opponents for being traditional politicians and supporters of the "status quo," Humala tells TIME that one of his first acts in office would be to "eliminate the 'golden payroll' for government employees," slashing salaries of the president and lawmakers. But on paper, the status quo doesn't seem so bad in Peru these days. The country is experiencing its longest economic expansion in modern history — 57 months — and inflation is near 1%, while exports have tripled to $18 billion in five years. Yet a majority of Peruvians are demanding radical change because the boom has not trickled down from the 5% of population that controls most of its wealth.

This is reflected in President Toledo's paltry support, a meager 20% in all polls, as well as in a late-March survey in which 68.5% of respondents said that they wanted to see major economic and political changes, including the election of an authoritarian government. "I am voting for Ollanta, because he is going to kick out all the corrupt politicians in Lima and govern for all Peru," said Felix Ticona, 24, at an Humala rally in the southern city of Moquegua.

Even as Humala claims he wants to "strengthen our relationship with the United States," he has also made it clear that he has some major differences with Washington. Most notably, Humala wants changes in the way the two nations deal with the issues of coca and cocaine. Peru is the world's second largest producer of coca, and the U.S. government has pumped $629 million into Peru since 2000 to reduce coca production, though with little success. Humala has stated that he will end U.S.-based programs to eradicate coca, supporting instead an approach that would "industrialize" it. "We need to separate coca from drugs," he told TIME. "We will be forceful in our anti-drug efforts, but that does not include eradication. God did not give us coca just so we can eradicate it."