Peru's Presidential Circus

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Anyone suddenly tuning in to Peru's presidential runoff this Sunday could easily be confused between the names in the news and those on the ballot. They might even wonder which South American country they are in. Former President Alan Garcìa, the pre-election favorite, is easily identifiable, but he has made his opponent a little harder to pin down. While Garcìa, 57, is pitted against retired Army colonel Ollanta Humala, 43, his comments in the waning days of the race make it seem as if he is running against Venezuela's leftist president Hugo Chávez. In his final campaign swing and last-minute TV ads, Garcìa tells voters that they have a clear choice, voting for him and the future of Peru or for Chávez.

"This is the decision," he booms, totally avoiding Humala's name in nearly an hour on the stump. Garcìa and Chávez have been trading insults for months, since the Venezuelan leader began openly supporting Humala and attacking Garcìa, other candidates and Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo. "Hugo Chávez is helping us every time he speaks. And Humala does not understand this," says Enrique Cornejo, Garcìa's chief economic advisor.

The focus on Chávez at the end of the race is only the final chapter in a colorful campaign that has centered more on the candidates' personalities and their supposed allies than on the issues. Besides Chávez, Bolivian President Evo Morales, former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori and his corrupt, imprisoned national security advisor, Vladimiro Montesinos, have also figured prominently.

With only five days to go in the race, for instance, Montesinos managed to write and smuggle out of prison a 41-page booklet alleging that Chávez and Cuban President Fidel Castro have manipulated Humala, using him as a pawn to spread social unrest. Along the way, both candidates have been pelted with rocks and rotting vegetables, and six people were hurt when shots were fired during a Garcìa rally. Outgoing President Toledo has warned that "paid disturbances" could be in the works for election day.

Until recently Garcìa, who ran Peru between 1985 and 1990, was primarily remembered for overseeing one of the worst governments in the Andean nation's modern history. In trying to pull the country out of the economic doldrums, he printed extra money, nationalized banks, and not surprisingly, ended up with four-digit inflation. Those memories are only eclipsed by the rampant terrorism at the hands of the Shining Path, which forced his government to put 75 percent of the country under a state of emergency.

Since advancing to a run-off with Humala, Garcìa has moved to the right, deciding to support Peru's recently signed free-trade agreement with the United States and toning down his earlier calls for a revision of tax breaks for foreign mining companies. The transformation has paid off; he has led in every poll since April. "Garcìa has run the better campaign, appealing to voters who want change but are weary of Humala's radical position and his ties to Chávez. Garcìa has exploited these fears," says former Foreign Minister Diego Garcìa Sayán.

Those fears of Humala, who came in first in the initial voting on April 9 after having only polled in the single digits last year, stem from his complicated, controversial background. His father is the founder of an ultranationalist, neo-Marxist movement that preaches the superiority of indigenous Peruvians over the country's descendants of the Spanish and promotes violence against those lighter-skinned elite. His mother has railed against homosexuality, while his young brother is in prison for leading an army reservists' attack on a police station last year that killed four officers.

A left-wing nationalist and 24-year veteran of the Peruvian Army, Humala himself has been accused of torturing and killing suspected guerrillas during the country's war against terrorism and the Shining Path in the early 1990s, charges he flatly denies. His only political activity before launching his campaign was a brief, unsuccessful uprising against then-President Fujimori in October 2000. After Fujimori's government collapsed a few weeks later, Humala was pardoned and sent abroad as a military attachÈ, returning to Peru early last year. He is the clear favorite among Peru's rural and urban poor, who have not benefited from the country's fast-growing economy and are receptive to his promise of radical change. Those promises include claims that he would nationalize "strategic industries" like the energy sector, veto the free trade agreement with the U.S. and end U.S.-supported programs to eradicate coca.

Whoever does win will have to deal with a cagey opposition that is unlikely to let down its guard. Neither candidate has a majority in Congress, with Humala's party holding 45 seats and Garcìa's 36 in the 120- member unicameral legislature. Which means that no matter how often Garcìa claims to be running against Hugo Chávez, when the race is over, he and Humala will eventually have to deal with each other — like it or not.