What kind of leftist president for Peru?

Associated Press
Presidential candidate Ollanta Humala flashes a victory sign to supporters after the presidential runoff election in Lima, Peru, Sunday June 5, 2011. The 48-year-old narrowly won Peru's presidency in a bitterly fought runoff with the daughter of disgraced ex-President Alberto Fujimori. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)
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LIMA, Peru (AP) — In his first, failed run to be Peru's president, Ollanta Humala projected the image of a radical leftist in Hugo Chavez's mold. This time, he called the Venezuelan leader's socialist-oriented economic model flawed, and sought moderate allies and courted Washington.

Yet many Peruvians wonder if this 48-year-old political novice, who like Chavez rose to the rank of army lieutenant colonel and has a failed coup on his resume, is really a market-friendly populist. Many skeptics fear he will renege on his promises and spring revolutionary change on an unsuspecting nation.

That worry sent Peru's main stock index plunging 12 percent Monday in a fit of jitters a day after Humala narrowly won a presidential runoff. Humala captured 51.5 percent of the vote to beat the daughter of disgraced former President Alberto Fujimori.

Humala's win marks the latest triumph of Latin America's left, which has rebounded with vigor in the past decade, led by Chavez's 1998 victory in oil-rich but economically distressed Venezuela. Leftists now govern in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Ecuador, Bolivia, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Brazil, and now Peru.

Yet it's a varied club ideologically. Only some members, such as Chavez, have strained relations with the United States. Even Cuba, under Fidel Castro's brother Raul, is experimenting with free-market reforms.

"Latin America is able to go left when it wants to these days, but it is able to go back," said Adam Isacson, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.

One example is Peru's neighbor Chile, which is led by conservative Sebastian Pinera. He followed moderate leftist President Michelle Bachelet.

Humala, too, is talking a moderate line.

He promises to make Peru "more just and less unequal," with "an economy that serves as a motor for social inclusion." But to do it without following the Chavista path of nationalizing industries, scaring off investors and alienating the wealthy. He praises Brazil's approach of attacking poverty while honoring the free market and private property.

The softening from his hard-line leftist approach in the 2006 campaign has much to do with his success this time.

After getting 32 percent of the vote in the election's first round, equal to the third of Peruvians who feel left out of the country's decade-long economic boom, Humala stitched together a coalition of moderates. That group included free-market disciples such as Nobel Prize literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa and his libertarian economist son, Alvaro.

Beside moderating his economic statements, Humala, also drew support from Peru's human rights community and dozens of respected academics by playing on another aspect of the election: that he was not his opponent, Keiko Fujimori.

Many of his supporters worried a Keiko Fujimori presidency would represent a return to power for her father, who is serving a 25-year prison term for authorizing death squads and corruption during his autocratic 1990-2000 regime.

Keiko Fujimori, 36, ended up in Sunday's runoff only because three more centrist candidates canceled each other out in the April 10 first round, dividing 45 percent of the vote. One of them, former President Alejandro Toledo, is a pro-business, center-left economist who later endorsed Humala.

"He doesn't have a mandate for radical change," Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky said of Humala. "He doesn't sound a lot like Hugo Chavez anymore."

"My guess is that he'll appoint independent, liberal types in the key economic positions: economy minister and central banker," Levitsky added.

Humala has yet to name a single Cabinet minister or an economic team, though his moderately leftist bench of experienced advisers includes former top Peruvian officials and Brazilian image-makers connected to that country's governing Worker's Party.

Visiting Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia on Monday, Chavez called Humala's victory the "dawning of a new era." He said it augers not "an epoch of change but rather a change of epoch that needs to continue consolidating in our America."

Despite such praise from Chavez, Humala has criticized Venezuelan policies such as currency controls, which have driven up inflation to region-leading levels. Humala also says he won't join Chavez's ALBA alliance of leftist nations and that he'll welcome Washington's help in fighting drug trafficking and other crime.

"Candidates are generally not winning elections by being wildly populist now," said Isacson, of the Washington Office on Latin America. "They're not winning by being orthodox free-marketeer either."

As long as Latin America persists as the region with the world's widest gulf between rich and poor — jet-setters who vacation in St. Moritz living beside peasants who lack running water and electricity — the left's appeal will be strong.

Humala wasn't the only presidential candidate who insisted on taxing the windfall profits of mining, the engine of Peru's economic renaissance. Toledo did, too.

Still, skeptics worry Humala will chart a course similar to that of Gen. Juan Velasco, the 1968-75 leftist dictator in Peru who carried out a largely failed agrarian reform, nationalized industries and forged close military ties with the Soviet Union.

Like Chavez, Humala is a fan.

In a January 2006 interview with The Associated Press, Humala expressed deep admiration for Velasco, who did free many rural workers from serf-like conditions on large estates.

"You could question his macroeconomics," Humala said. "But Velasco gave dignity to the people who lived in the countryside."

Humala said in his victory speech Sunday that he aspires to take the next step: using Peru's wealth to deliver hospitals, schools and well-paying jobs to what have always been rural backwaters.

"We've been waiting a long time for a government that really cares about the poor," he said.

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Associated Press writers Carla Salazar and Franklin Briceno in Lima and Ian James in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.

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

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