Peru vote: Fujimori daughter or leftist ex-soldier

June 5, 2011 - 5:42 PM
Peru Elections

A Quechua indigenous woman looks for her voting booth number at a polling station during the presidential runoff election in Ollantaytambo village in Peru, Sunday June 5, 2011. Peruvians vote Sunday in their country's closely contested presidential race between Keiko Fujimori, daughter of jailed ex-president Alberto Fujimori and Ollanta Humala, a former military officer. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

LIMA, Peru (AP) — A sharply divided Peru voted Sunday in a tight presidential runoff pitting the daughter of an ex-president imprisoned for rights abuses and corruption against a leftist military man who spooked investors by promising the poor a greater share of the Andean nation's mineral wealth.

Many Peruvians consider both a potential threat to democracy given the candidates' human rights credentials.

Exit polls released after polling stations closed gave the edge to cashiered army Lt. Col. Ollanta Humala, indicating he would end up with more than 52 percent of valid votes against 48 percent for Keiko Fujimori.

Humala narrowly lost the 2006 presidential election to Alan Garcia. He is backed largely by the one in three Peruvians who are poor and have not benefited from a mining bonanza that fueled economic growth averaging 7 percent annually since 2001.

Fujimori, who would be Peru's first female leader, became the refuge of the pro-business status quo after the April 10 first round, when three candidates split the centrist vote, together amassing 45 percent.

Her base has long been those who consider her father, Alberto Fujimori, a hero for vanquishing hyperinflation and fanatical Shining Path rebels during his autocratic presidency in 1990-2000, and who forgive his sins.

Humala had the endorsement of former President Alejandro Toledo, who finished fourth. Fujimori is backed by third-place finisher Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a former prime minister and investment banker.

Some voters were so disgusted they decided to mark their ballots "neither" in protest.

"I wanted to have a clean conscience so I didn't vote for either," said Elvia Calderon, a 60-year-old housewife who said she annulled her ballot in Lima's upper class La Molina district.

Both candidates are populists who promise a raft of giveaways for the poor, including free school meals and preschool care. Humala promises a government pension for all at age 65.

But Humala, unlike his opponent, also insists on taxing windfall mining profits and exporting less natural gas so it is cheaper for Peruvians.

That's why Isabel Apaza, a 56-year-old street vendor, voted for him.

"Peru has so many riches, so many natural riches from which the people earn a pittance," she said in Villa el Salvador, a poor, sprawling Lima district.

Humala has softened his rhetoric to make it less offensive to investors, backing down from early calls for renegotiating free trade agreements and rewriting the constitution.

He now disavows Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, who openly backed him in 2006, and swears he's a democrat who would steer Peru closer to the United States and Brazil than to Chavez's leftist alliance that includes Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, none of which currently have U.S. ambassadors.

The business community, though, fears Humala would follow Chavez's playbook of seeking to cling to power while nationalizing industries and expropriating land.

Such things happened in 1968-75 in Peru under the leftist military dictatorship of Gen. Juan Velasco, for whom Humala expressed esteem during the 2006 race.

At stake now, for starters, is the potential for losing more than $40 billion in investment pledged over the next decade to develop Peru's mines of gold, silver, copper and other metals.

"He's going to change the constitution and stay in power. And the investors are going to go away, too," said Luis Rodriguez, a Villa El Salvador street vendor who voted for Keiko Fujimori.

But others fear her election would be a rerun of her father's autocratic, kleptocratic regime, which Transparency International deemed the seventh most corrupt of modern times. He is serving a 25-year sentence for authorizing death squads and kidnappings as well as corruption. Father and daughter share the same inner circle.

"She is a 36-year-old, relatively unknown woman and the main draw is dad," said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist in Peru for the election. Many Peruvians believe Alberto Fujimori is running the campaign from the police compound where he enjoys spacious quarters.

Human rights questions also dog Humala, 48.

He was accused but never tried for rights abuses as a counterinsurgency commander in the 1990s. And in a radio address from Korea, where he was military attache, he encouraged a 2005 revolt against Toledo by his now-imprisoned brother, Antauro, that claimed the lives of four policemen.

Juan Antonio Herrera, a 64-year-old bookeeper, called Humala "a simple soldier without schooling. He nearly committed a coup d'etat. Fujimori is better though she'll free her father. What can we do? We don't have any other option."

Keiko Fujimori, now a congresswoman, said when he was convicted in 2009 that she'd become president so she could pardon him, but has since reversed herself.

She was Peru's first lady from 1994, when her parents' marriage ended nastily, until her father resigned in disgrace six years later in a corruption scandal. She has expressed regret for abuses during her 72-year-old father's rule, but still calls him Peru's best president.

Peru's largely business-friendly news media made no attempt to mask its anti-Humala bias in the runoff.

The Nobel-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa was so angry about it that he pulled his commentary column from El Comercio, calling Peru's dominant newspaper a "propaganda machine" for Keiko Fujimori. He lost the 1990 election to her father but insists he only seeks to prevent a "cruel dictatorship" from returning to power.

Peru has one of Latin America's widest gulfs between rich and poor, and its wealth barely reaches the rural highlands where most mines are and where two in three live in poverty.

"The prosperity is fundamentally confined to the coast," said Cesar Hildebrandt, a veteran Peruvian journalist. "Everything along the (Pacific) ocean has gotten better. Everything in the Andean part is the same or worse."

For Sunday's election, Aymara Indian strike leaders lifted a nearly monthlong road blockade in the southern highlands state of Puno demanding the cancellation of a Canadian-owned silver mine they believe will poison their water.

Their reasoning: it's Humala territory. Protest leader Walter Aduviri told The Associated Press by telephone he believed Humala would negotiate in good faith with the strikers while Keiko Fujimori would exhibit the indifference his people have come to expect from far-off Lima.

"There has never been dialogue with us," Aduviri said. "They call us radicals but we're so forgotten that they only notice us when there are protests."

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Associated Press writers Carla Salazar and Franklin Briceno contributed to this report.

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Frank Bajak on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fbajak.