Ollanta Humala, a nationalist, protectionist candidate, has emerged from relative obscurity to become the frontrunner in Peru's April 9 presidential elections (Electionguide.org). The first round of voting was not expected to produce an outright victory for any candidate, but with most of the votes counted, Humala clung to a narrow lead (CS Monitor). In a virtual dead heat for second were the country's pro-business candidate, Lourdes Flores Nano, and former president Alan Garcia. Less than a month ago Flores Nano seemed well placed for victory. But Humala has claimed both the lead and the international spotlight in a surge reminiscent of the rapid rise of Evo Morales in Bolivia, and of Peruvian underdogs past, like Alberto Fujimori. The issues defining Peru's election are analyzed in this CFR Background Q&A.
A May 7 runoff will pit Humalla against the runner-up from the first round of voting. But a Humalla victory is hardly a foregone conclusion; pollsters note Flores Nano still leads in a two-way contest (Bloomberg), though others suggest the gap is narrowing (Economist). Humala has campaigned under the new Peruvian Nationalist Party, and has promised to restrict foreign investment, fraying nerves in the country's financial markets (Reuters). He has also indicated a desire to legalize coca farming, which underpins the Peruvian economy but also enables the production of cocaine. Any move to legalize coca farming, which would mirror steps underway in Bolivia, could pose yet another headache for U.S. drug interdiction efforts in South America, as explained in this CFR Background Q&A.
In light of Humala's sudden rise, some analysts predict Peru will be the next Latin American domino to fall left. Presidential elections take place in twelve countries in the region in 2006, making this a bellwether year. Already Chile has elected a socialist, Michelle Bachelet, and Bolivia has elected Morales, who ran on a pro-coca campaign, though these leaders have so far struck a less anti-American chord than originally feared. Still, polls show that the United States is increasingly unpopular in Latin America (Zogby). Peru's elections will be viewed either as a moment when the leftist tide was stemmed, or as a possible tipping point and proof that the United States has "lost" the region (BBC).
Looming large over the region's politics is the figure of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's populist president. Chavez has endorsed Humala's campaign, though Humala has not reaffirmed ties to the Venezuelan as overtly as Morales did while campaigning in Bolivia. Still, as Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, writes in Foreign Affairs, U.S. officials "are convinced Chavez is provoking instability." In an interview with cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman, CFR fellow Julia Sweig says the "war of words has escalated" between Washington and Caracas.
Chavez has managed to play conflict with the United States to his political advantage, although as Sweig notes in a separate cfr.org interview, there are signs of a new Bush administration policy in the recent diplomatic overtures of Condoleezza Rice and Karen Hughes. But as significant as Chavez's rhetoric are concerns that free-market advocates have not been able to relieve the regions economic woes. The World Bank reports that poverty remains a primary concern for Latin American populations, and experts say that, despite a recent boom in commodities exports, fundamental needs like food and basic healthcare are not being met.