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Last Updated: Monday, 13 March 2006, 09:33 GMT
Peru candidates court the poor
By Michael Voss
BBC News, Lima

As dusk falls over Lima and the summer heat finally starts to ease, thousands of Ollanta Humala's supporters crowd in front of a makeshift stage in a working class suburb of the capital.

Ollanta Humala
Mr Humala led a rebellion against ex-President Alberto Fujimori

A populist former army officer, Mr Humala has captured the imagination many of Peru's poor and dispossessed ahead of next month's presidential elections.

The mood is noisy and festive, and the warm-up acts cover everything from the urban rhythms of "musica criolla" to Andean folk dances. Then the cheering erupts, as Mr Humala steps onto the stage.

He has the fit, lean look of a soldier, combined with a relaxed and engaging smile. He and all his entourage are dressed in red T-shirts bearing the slogan "Amor por el Peru" ("Love for Peru").

An ardent nationalist, Mr Humala wants to increase state control of key mining and gas sectors. He has the support of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, which has alarmed Washington, as has his pledge to legalise coca production.

"Nationalism is the recuperation of our sovereignty and of our resources, which God put in the ground to benefit out children," was his message to the enthusiastic crowd.

The question of poverty has become very important in the political debate
Political analyst Rafael Roncagliolo

Mr Humala, 44, is a retired lieutenant colonel who led a failed military rebellion against the then President, Alberto Fujimori, in 2000.

His father was one of the country's leading communists who also believed that only the descendants of the Incas could pull the country out of poverty.

After the rally, I asked him if the West need fear a Humala presidency?

"There's nothing to fear, nothing at all," he assured me. "We will work together for the development of the whole of society, democratically and in peace."

Unpopular president

At one point he was leading in the polls, but has subsequently slipped into second place. His rise from nowhere reflects the disillusionment of many Peruvians with the country's traditional political parties.

The outgoing President, Alejandro Toledo, is so unpopular that his party is not even fielding a candidate in the elections; they are only contesting congressional seats - this despite the current administration overseeing one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America.

Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo
President Toledo's public approval rating has slumped

According to recent government figures, Peru's GDP grew by a record 6.67% in 2005. In some areas of Lima, there is a newfound affluence, and shopping malls have sprung up around the city.

Yet little of this wealth has filtered down. Official figures place some 48% of the population below the poverty line, with about a quarter of the country living in extreme poverty.

Mr Humala's appearance on the political scene has certainly scared Peru's main political parties, who are now going out of their way to court the poor.

According to political analyst Rafael Roncagliolo, from the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance: "Humala is a challenge.

"All the other political parties have to take into account the reaction of the people against politicians. The question of poverty has become very important in the political debate, and that is good for the country."

There are more than 20 candidates contesting the election.

Mr Fujimori had intended to return from exile to run. Instead, he is languishing in jail in neighbouring Chile awaiting extradition on charges of corruption and human rights abuses.

Martha Chavez, a former head of congress, is running in his place.

Woman president?

Another ex-President, Alan Garcia, is also in the race. In the 1980s he left the Peruvian economy in ruins, with inflation running at more than 7,000%.

But Mr Garcia's party, Apra, is the oldest in the country and has by far the best oiled political machine. He is currently in third position and remains a potential dark horse candidate.

The leading candidate is a single woman, Lourdes Flores, 46. A pro-business lawyer and former congresswoman, she can be seen daily on national television on walkabouts through shanty towns and poor rural areas.

Lourdes Flores
Something new is happening in Latin America, and I do think that we women should represent in our continent the social change
Front-runner Lourdes Flores

I caught up with her in a shanty town called Mi Peru, just outside Lima. Built on a dusty hilltop, there has been some development here - many of the wooden shacks now have electricity - but mains water and drainage has yet to arrive.

With much of the continent swinging left in what is seen as a reaction against the failed US-inspired neo-liberal economic policies, Ms Flores is campaigning on a different note.

She is promoting micro-credits and training for small businesses rather than promising big investment. "I'm not the candidate of big business," she told me from atop her campaign truck.

So is Peru ready for a woman president? Neighbouring Chile, which is equally conservative on social issues, has just elected one.

"Something new is happening in Latin America, and I do think that we women should represent in our continent the social change that requires," Ms Flores said.

For the moment, the polls put Ms Flores in the lead, with Mr Humala in second place. Historically, though, Peruvian polls have not been very reliable.

Studies show that voters often do not make up their minds until a few days before the polls. For now, the one firm prediction is that the race looks set to go to a second round.

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