Another ally of Chávez on the way up

Observations on Peru

News that Ollanta Humala was topping the polls ahead of Peru's presidential election on Sunday set alarm bells ringing in Washington and sent the Lima stock exchange crashing. A smear campaign had done nothing to slow the progress of this ex-colonel, self-styled nationalist and protégé of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez; the more the establishment pounds him, the more popular he becomes.

The polls indicated that he and the conservative Lourdes Flores would go through to a run-off in May, though a first-round win for Ollanta could not be ruled out.

He rose to fame in 2000 when he and his brother Antauro led a failed military rebellion against the semi-dictator Alberto Fujimori. Antauro, who led a second rising in 2004, against Fujimori's successor, is now in prison. Their father, Isaac, founded etnocacerismo, a nationalist doctrine with fascist overtones, and the Peruvian press had a field day recently when their mother called for homosexuals to be shot.

Unsurprisingly, Ollanta now distances himself from his family, defining his own nationalism as a belief that those excluded from political and economic life for reasons of class, race or gender should be fully empowered citizens.

Clean-cut and charismatic, he is less bombastic than his mentor Chávez, and more articulate than the Bolivian president, Evo Morales. Slick campaigning, a tough line against corruption and a lack of association with the established parties have earned him a big following. All analysts agree that his rise reflects a long-standing disillusionment in Peru with mainstream politics.

Like all outsiders, Ollanta is an unknown quantity, and the only people to have a clear opinion of him are his right-wing opponents. According to Mario Vargas Llosa, the author and one-time conservative presidential candidate, he represents a return to "dictatorship, authoritarianism, a subjugated press, judicial manipulation, impunity, and the systematic abuse of human rights".

The left is wary, but some progressives are backing Ollanta. His running mate is the central bank director, Gonzalo García Núñez, who wrote their manifesto. It combines macroeconomic orthodoxy with pledges to fund social services from higher taxes.

All of this comes just as Peru experiences a boom, with the economy growing by nearly 7 per cent last year. But the 54 per cent of Peruvians who live in poverty and usually don't even have mains drinking water have seen little benefit.

One commentator said an Ollanta victory would be a "leap into the unknown". For indigenous Peruvians, the black-market workers, the labourers and the jobless who make up his constituency, it is a leap they are willing to take.