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Peruvian Populist Leads Presidential Opinion Polls

In Peru, a left-leaning populist firebrand has surged to the top of public opinion polls before Sunday's presidential vote. In the first of a two-part series from Lima, VOA's Michael Bowman examines the candidacy of Ollanta Humala, a man who has drawn comparisons to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

To the sound of Andean folk music, Ollanta Humala took to a dazzlingly glitzy stage in downtown Lima. Thousands of near-delirious supporters roared.

Sporting his trademark red T-shirt and jeans, Humala paced back and forth, punctuating an ear-splitting oratory with broad hand gestures.

"We need a new foundation for the republic, to build a new society: an egalitarian society where everyone is equal under the law," he said, "and where the law does not favor the rich over the poor; a new society based on solidarity and dignity. Because, quite simply, in Peru we have a dictatorship of economic powers allied with trans-national interests."

Humala pledged to terminate tax breaks designed to draw foreign investment, and to wage an all-out battle against corruption. He said politicians have failed the country, and the time has come for change.

"The only ones who should fear change are those who are benefiting economically from the catastrophic situation in which Peru finds itself," he said. "They fear change, the people do not."

Most polls project pro-business candidate Lourdes Flores as the likely second-place finisher in Sunday's vote. A Flores spokesman, Luis Felipe Arizmendi, notes that Peru has logged solid economic growth for four consecutive years. He admits the country's poor have yet to feel the benefits of an expanding economy, but says Humala's plan is the wrong solution.

"Economic conditions have improved, with greater foreign and domestic investment," he said. "So, radically changing the economic and political model could bring irreversible and very dangerous results."

Yet, drastic change is precisely what Lima slum-dweller Roberto Contreras says he wants.

"I would like the person we elect to change the direction of the country, which is going from bad to worse, so that the poor do not become poorer and there is more justice for everyone. A radical change," he said.

Asked what kind of leader he wants, Contreras says, "authoritarian."

Peruvian public-opinion pollster Alfredo Torres says Contreras is not alone in stressing results over the democratic process, a trend that has boosted Ollanta Humala's standings in the polls.

"Humala, as a former military man, is perceived as authoritarian, and there is a segment of the population that wants a president, who exercises more authority," he said. "Behind all of this is a great mistrust of the political class, a feeling that congress does not represent the people. This creates a desire for a strongman who will defend the poor."

But Lima engineering student Carlos Gonzalez says he wants nothing of Humala's populist platform.

"I am concerned about employment and preserving the free market, not interfering with it," he said.

Allegations have surfaced of human rights abuses committed by Humala as an officer during Peru's bloody battle against leftist Shining Path guerrillas. Humala has denied the charges and accused political opponents of smear tactics. He professes admiration for Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, but describes himself as a "populist democrat," not a socialist. Nevertheless, Peru's stock market plunged recently, when polls showed him pulling ahead of center-right candidate Lourdes Flores.

In a field of some 20 presidential candidates, it appears unlikely that anyone will secure more than 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a run-off contest. Some political analysts are predicting, in a second round of balloting, many smaller parties would band together in opposition to the fiery Humala.