- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2006

LIMA, Peru — Three candidates were locked in a tight presidential election yesterday, with Peruvians so polarized over the candidacy of a nationalistic former army officer that he was taunted by hundreds of opponents as he cast his ballot.

Exit polls and early official results indicated an extremely close race, with a slight lead for Ollanta Humala, the former army officer. None of the candidates was expected to get more than 50 percent of the vote, and a runoff between the two top finishers was likely in late May or early June.

A victory for Mr. Humala, a political newcomer, could tilt this Andean nation leftward toward Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. His main challengers — Alan Garcia, a former president, and Lourdes Flores, a former congresswoman — generally favor the free-market policies that have generated strong growth but little improvement in the lives of poor Peruvians.

With 30 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Humala had 27.6 percent, Mrs. Flores had 26.7 percent and Mr. Garcia had 25.7 percent.

Mr. Humala, 43, has instilled fear in many Peruvians, especially the middle and upper classes, by identifying himself with Mr. Chavez, Venezuela’s militantly anti-U.S. president.

The former army lieutenant colonel and his wife were trapped for nearly an hour in their neighborhood polling station, in an upper-class district, by hundreds of demonstrators who chanted “Assassin” and “You’re the same as Chavez.” A few hurled rocks.

After voting, Mr. Humala and his wife were escorted to a waiting car by riot police, who held Plexiglas shields above them. Lloyd Axworthy, a former Canadian foreign minister who is leading an international observer team, accompanied the two.

The “assassin” chants were an apparent reference to accusations that Mr. Humala committed human rights abuses while commanding a counterinsurgency base in Peru’s eastern jungle in 1992. He denies any wrongdoing.

Mr. Humala, a law-and-order nationalist, told reporters before voting that Peruvians had a chance to “begin the nation’s great transformation.” He has heavy support among Peru’s poor, who feel bypassed by the country’s economic growth.

A powerful factor in the campaign has been his image as a stern military man who will fight crime and punish the corrupt.

Mr. Humala has pledged to give preference to Peruvian-owned businesses over foreign investors, raise taxes on foreign companies and spend the money on the poor, and rewrite the Peruvian Constitution to strip power from a political class viewed as corrupt.

He says he admires the 1968-75 leftist dictatorship of Gen. Juan Velasco, who took over Peru’s media, implemented largely unsuccessful agrarian reforms and forged close ties with the Soviet Union.

President Alejandro Toledo urged Peruvians in a televised speech Saturday night not to elect someone who would usher in “the authoritarianism and instability that we’ve known in the past.”

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