Leftist Humala woos ethnic vote, widens lead in Peru

By Teresa Cespedes

AREQUIPA, Peru (Reuters) – Leftist front-runner Ollanta Humala, seeking to shore up the crucial ethnic vote, on Friday urged poor Peruvians with indigenous roots to back him in Sunday’s presidential election.

Humala, who has widened his lead over three rivals backed by the business class, wrapped up his campaign in the Andes by pledging to meet the needs of rural voters who often complain of being ignored by Peru’s elite of European descent.

The latest poll gave Humala a lead of almost 10 points, but he is not expected to win the 50 percent needed for outright victory, forcing a run-off with a second-placed candidate who could unite opposition to the populist leader.

Capturing the ethnic vote is key in a nation that was the seat of the Inca empire, and Humala’s rising poll ratings show he has stolen support in the highlands from former President Alejandro Toledo, nicknamed “the Cholo” because of his strong Andean features.

“The great transformation will be the big redistribution of wealth in the country. The wealth should be shared by all Peruvians,” he told thousands of cheering supporters who waved the rainbow-colored flag of the Incan empire in a dusty district of the city of Arequipa.

“We don’t want to divide Peru, but unite it,” he said in the speech late on Thursday.

Humala, a former army officer who has moderated his hard-line tone since narrowly losing the 2006 race, has promised “gradual change” to ensure the benefits of strong economic growth reach millions of poor Peruvians.

A third of Peru’s 30 million people still live in poverty despite a decade-long economic boom that has brought stability after years plagued by hyperinflation and guerrilla wars.

Humala has sought to recast himself as a moderate leftist leader like Brazil’s former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, though many voters regard him as a hard-line leftist in the mold of Venezuela’s populist President Hugo Chavez.

Humala’s critics fear he would increase state control over the economy, risking some $40 billion in investments lined up for the country’s vast mining sector.

Peru’s currency, the sol has been volatile on worries about an Humala victory, but some on Wall Street have said his promises to be fiscally prudent and respect the central bank’s independence sound credible.

Humala, who has distanced himself from Chavez and dropped his anti-capitalist rhetoric, vowed to work to resolve conflicts involving local residents opposed to mining or energy projects — a significant risk for investors in Peru.

“We need to find a solution to these social conflicts in order to make Peru more attractive for investment,” he told reporters back in Lima. “We must convince local communities they can benefit from investment.”

A new poll by local survey firm Datum showed Humala extending his lead to 31.9 percent of the vote, followed by right-wing lawmaker Keiko Fujimori with 22.3 percent, a source who had seen the poll told Reuters on Friday.

That would pit Fujimori against Humala in a June run-off.

The poll gave former Finance Minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski 17.3 percent and put Toledo, who was the front-runner for much of the campaign, in fourth place with 15.3 percent.

Humala and Toledo have the strongest pull in the Andes, due to their family roots. Fujimori may also do well in the region. Her imprisoned father, former President Alberto Fujimori, was liked in the Andes, in part because his parents were Japanese immigrants who were not members of Peru’s elite.

Toledo has said a run-off between Humala and Fujimori would put democracy at risk because he could reverse years of economic gains while Fujimori might show little respect for human rights. Her father is in jail for corruption and rights crimes stemming from his crackdown on insurgents in the 1990s.

Humala accused his rivals of fear-mongering: “Those who want to build a democracy based on fear in reality are the ones who fear democracy.”

(Additional reporting by Caroline Stauffer; Writing by Terry Wade; editing by Philip Barbara)

Leftist Humala woos ethnic vote, widens lead in Peru