Peru's Presidential Vote: Looking Out for No. 2

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(l. to r.): Cris Bouroncle / AFP / Getty Images; Pilar Olivares / Reuters

Candidates for president of Peru Keiko Fujimori (left) and Ollanta Humala

Alfredo Salazar says he has never really been too interested in politics and never saw himself attending a campaign-closing rally in Lima, Peru's bustling capital. But the 48-year old shop owner did just that on April 5, pushing his way into the crowd in a downtown plaza to listen to Ollanta Humala, the leading candidate in a field of 10 running for President of Peru this Sunday.

"I think he is the best candidate and I wanted to hear what he had to say," Salazar shouted over music and fireworks as Humala finished an hour-long speech that included fist-pumping attacks on the country's political class and a pledge to change the country's economic model that he says only works for a small percentage of Peru's 30 million people.

Humala, 48, is on the cusp of placing first in the balloting April 10, charging past more seasoned politicians. What is stunning is he has done it with a left-wing nationalist discourse that most political pundits and politicians predicted would not resonate with voters. Humala has polling close to 30% in the latest polls, which should ensure him a spot in a run-off election scheduled for June 5. Under Peruvian legislation a winning candidate must obtain 50% plus one of the votes to get elected, otherwise the top two candidates go into a runoff. The race right now is to see who will face Humala.

This is a repeat scenario of five years ago, when Humala placed first and Lourdes Flores Nano and Alan Garcia fought ballot by ballot to get into the crucial runner-up position. Garcia eventually won by 60,000 votes and went on to defeat Humala in a runoff.

Polling second this time, but by a hair, is Congresswoman Keiko Fujimori, daughter of disgraced and imprisoned former President Alberto Fujimori. Fujimori, 35, a Columbia Business School graduate with a Pennsylvania-bred husband, is running on what she people see as the good part of her father's record. Right behind her are Alejandro Toledo, who was President from 2001-2006, and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who served as Toledo's finance minister.

Manuel Saavedra, head on the CPI polling firm, says Humala's progess onto the second round is nearly certain, but second place is really anyone's guess. "There is still a great deal of uncertainty among the electorate. The situation is still fluid," he says. He adds that CPI's last poll found that 11% of the electorate was still undecided. "We have never had such a high percentage of undecided voters at the end of a race."

Just the thought of Humala making it to a run-off election has the country's ruling class, including most Peruvian media, in a panic. That he might face off against Congresswoman Fujimori is considered a nightmarish scenario. Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru's only Nobel laureate and a presidential candidate himself 20 years ago, has famously compared a Fujimori-Humala match up like having to choice between "terminal cancer and AIDS."

The anti-Humala forces link him to Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and some of the more erratic left-leaders in Latin America. Humala himself has tried to downplay the Chávez connection by emphasizing his connection with Brazil's former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In the 2006 election, criticim of the Chávez tie was one of the reasons Humala lost to Garcia (who is not running because presidents are not allowed to seek consecutive terms.)

The anti-Fujimori vote is just as intense. Her father is serving a 25-year sentence on human rights abuses. He has also been convicted on corruption charges. His 10-year regime was by far the most corrupt in Peru's modern history. The congresswoman is betting that Peruvians will overlook the billions of dollars in theft for which he is serving time in prison and focus instead on her father's successful record against inflation and terrorism in the early 1990s. More importantly, she has pursued the populist giveaway campaigns, everything from food to sweatshirts, that were the trademark of his government.

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