On April 9, Peruvians will vote for a new president and congress. None of the 20 presidential candidates is expected to receive more than 50 percent of the votes needed to win in a first round. It is the May 9th runoff election that will determine Peru's future.
Located on South America's Pacific Coast, Peru is known for its ancient Indian civilizations, especially the Inca, a people who built cities and roads in some of the most inhospitable parts of the Andes Mountains.
Today, more than two-thirds of Peruvians are of Indian or mixed descent. Still, current President Alejandro Toledo, a free market centrist, who was elected in 2001, is the first indigenous Peruvian to hold the office. Mr. Toledo is not running for re-election, but another indigenous South American is. He is retired general Ollanta Humala Tasso, a radical populist who is expected to reach the second round ballot. But many analysts say that ethnicity will not be a prominent factor in this election.
Poverty, Unemployment Key Issues in 2006 Election
"A lack of jobs is a key problem -- a lack of employment throughout the Andean region, but also a sense that income distribution remains highly skewed," says Peter DeShazo, Director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"The Peruvian economy, in macroeconomic terms, has performed very well in past years. It's been one of the top performers in Latin America with a very dynamic agricultural and mining, and now energy sector -- very oriented toward export-led growth and has attracted substantial foreign investment. So that's all been very positive," says DeShazo.
Yet job growth has proven elusive in an economy that expanded nearly seven percent last year and is expected to record robust growth this year.
President Toledo has promised that the benefits of economic growth will soon spread to ordinary Peruvians. But for most of them, it is not happening quickly enough and so the president has lost most of their support.
Populist Candidate Proposes a Model From the Past
Bruce St. John, an analyst for the Washington-based research organization Foreign Policy in Focus, says a quest for change explains the rising popularity of Ollanta Humala, whose only political experience is his involvement in a failed military coup.
"Ollanta Humala Tasso is a pretty interesting fellow, a very charismatic retired army officer. He first drew attention internationally six years ago when he led a failed month-long military uprising against the regime of then President Alberto Fujimori. He was briefly imprisoned, eventually pardoned by the Fujimori government, remained in the army, but was forced out or forced into retirement December of 2004, after the Toledo administration passed him over for promotion, probably because he was obviously a popular character and they could see him running for the presidency in 2006," says St. John.
Ollanta Humala, a candidate of the nationalist Union for Peru party, favors state control of industry and the economy. He proposes renegotiating contracts with foreign enterprises and says he will not sign a recently negotiated Free Trade Agreement with the United States. He says he would suspend the eradication of coca plants, the prime source of cocaine. Andean people have used coca for centuries to supplement their diet, but the United States has spent millions of dollars to eradicate the plant in the region to curb the illegal drug trade.
According to public opinion polls, Humala's support has grown from about 10 percent in November, when he entered the presidential race, to about one third of the electorate. His growing popularity is causing dismay in Peru's business community and among international investors.
Many analysts say Peruvian voters would do well to remember that similar strategies by authoritarian leftist President Juan Velasco in the 1970s sent the economy spiraling into a 30-year slide.
Continued Economic Growth As Strategy Against Poverty
Humala's closest rival, lawyer Lourdes Flores Nano, entered politics in 1986 and was elected to the Peruvian Congress in 1990 and in 1995. She also ran for president in 2001 and finished in third place with about 23 percent of votes.
Flores Nano's current campaign is a frontal attack on poverty that stresses expanded agricultural production and improved education and health care. Many analysts say she has proven leadership skills and point out that for many months she was the frontrunner in this year's presidential race. But Ollanta Humala seem to be pulling ahead in the polls.
Steve Johnson, a Latin America analyst at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, says Flores Nano's campaign has been undermined by outside interference.
"Flores managed to keep her lead throughout most of January, February and the beginning of March. And it's only recently that Humala has been able to come up from very close to begin to overtake her. Part of that, I think, has to do with the fact that he did go to Venezuela and he visited with President Chavez. Chavez gave him a public endorsement. And then Chavez came out and labeled Flores the candidate of the oligarchs. And that had some effect that resonated in the Peruvian countryside and some of the poorer barrios," says Johnson.
But many analysts also say that Peru has neither the indigenous social movements that brought to power Bolivia's Evo Morales nor the disciplined and coherent party organizations that have sustained the left in Chile, Uruguay and Brazil.
So, most observers say, the first round of elections is not likely to produce a clear winner. This, they add, will give Peruvians more time to examine what the two leading candidates are promising and how likely they are to fulfill their promises once they get elected.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.