Ollanta Humala: Peru’s Next President?

The first round of Peru’s presidential election makes maverick nationalist Ollanta Humala the favourite.

The news that Ollanta Humala was leading in the opinion polls, ahead of Peru’s first-round presidential elections on Sunday 9 April, set alarm bells ringing in Washington and sent the stock-exchange in Lima tumbling.

Still, not even a furious smear campaign by his opponents has done anything to dent the popularity of Humala, an ex-army lieutenant-colonel, self-styled nationalist and acknowledged protégé of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez. On the contrary, the more the establishment pounds him, the more popular he becomes.

As predicted Humala won Sunday’s vote with around 30% of the ballots. This is well short of the 50% needed for an outright win so a run-off election will be held on 7 May. What is still unclear is who his opponent will be. The conservative candidate, Lourdes Flores, and the former president and centre-left candidate, Alan García, are technically tied for second place with around 25% of the vote each. It will take days before all the ballots are counted and a second place winner announced.  If Flores does go through, all eyes will be on García to see whether he endorses either of his rivals.  

Humala, charismatic and forceful, is a clean-cut, fit, 43-year-old with an attractive wife and two children. He has spent over twenty years in the army, holds a master’s degree in political science, and both he and his wife, Nadine Heredia, are enrolled as doctoral students at the Sorbonne. Humala is less bombastic than his mentor Chávez, and more articulate than his soulmate, Bolivia’s new president, Evo Morales. He counts among his heroes the French soldier-statesman Charles de Gaulle and Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, founder of Peru’s reformist Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (American Popular Revolutionary Alliance [Apra]) and a leading proponent of nationalist revolutions in Latin America.

The world first heard of Humala in October 2000, when he and his brother Antauro led a failed military rebellion against the authoritarian then-president Alberto Fujimori. (Fujimori fled Peru for Japan in 2000 in the face of scandal and instability, and is currently being held in Chile as Peru seeks his extradition.) In 2004, Antauro – who is now in prison – led a second, equally ill-planned, uprising against Peru’s current president, Alejandro Toledo.

The two renegade brothers are the sons of Isaac Humala, a labour lawyer, former communist and the founder of etnocacerismo – an indigenous nationalist doctrine with slightly fascist overtones. (The Peruvian press had a field day recently when Ollanta’s mother called for homosexuals to be shot.) Humala, who categorically denies being homophobic, has abandoned etnocacerismo and tried to distance himself from his eccentric family. His nationalism is now defined as a belief that those excluded from Peruvian political and economic life – for reasons of class, ethnic background or gender – should become fully empowered citizens. "In some cases they call it leftist or socialist, others call it indigenismo. In Peru we call it nationalism", he says. "What we are looking for is an alternative to the neo-liberal model."

Humala emphasises his commitment to regional integration, and was recently received by presidents Luis Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Néstor Kirchner of Argentina. "We look to the Argentinean government and to the governments of Lula, Chávez, Evo Morales, (Uruguay’s) Tabaré Vázquez and (Chile’s) Michelle Bachelet", he says. "These are the progressive forces that are building a huge Latin American family. We want to belong to this family."

A tough line against corruption, reasonably slick campaigning, and distance from the traditional parties have earned him a popular following. Analysts agree that Humala’s rise reflects widespread disillusionment with Peru’s establishment politics. This election is likely to mark the third time in the last two decades – after Fujimori and Alejandro – that voters have turned to an outsider.

The shadows over Humala

The United States state department has, until now, kept quiet, leaving the job of discrediting and demonising Humala to the Peruvian establishment and the press it controls. The respected journalist and TV presenter César Hildebrandt was dismissed by the television channel Frecuencia Latina in February after he interviewed Humala on air. Referring to his former employers and the interests behind them, Hildebrandt said: "They only talk of democracy when the democracy is going to elect someone who represents them … [In Peru] there is a perfect marriage between economic power and the press."

Of the dozens of accusations hurled at Humala, the one that might stick is human-rights abuses – abuses allegedly committed in the early 1990s, when he commanded the Madre Mía garrison in northern Peru during the war against Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas. A judicial investigation is under way. While it is certainly plausible that someone involved in frontline combat against the Shining Path could have been involved in human-rights violations, Humala’s supporters (and some journalists) say that testimony of wrongdoing collected from local farmers has been manipulated and falsified. [Also see US Meddling in Peruvian Presidential Race?]

Humala’s indigenous credentials also have been challenged. Ollanta is a Quechua name, meaning "all-seeing warrior", but his mother has an Italian surname, Tasso. It has been widely reported that "a sociologist" investigated his indigenous paternal ancestors and discovered they had been exploitative landowners.

The establishment media’s onslaught against Humala is reminiscent of the Venezuelan press’s campaign to destabilise Chávez. If Venezuela is anything to go by, Peru will soon have a hysterical middle class facing off against an indignant majority. Mario Vargas Llosa – the novelist, rightwing columnist, former presidential candidate and de facto spokesman for Lourdes Flores – recently likened the choice between Flores and Humala to one between "democratic continuity and dictatorship". Identifying Humala with Fujimori, Vargas Llosa asked: "How it is possible that at least a third of Peruvians want a return to dictatorship, authoritarianism, a subjugated press, judicial manipulation, impunity and the systematic abuse of human rights?"

Humala has repeatedly stated his commitment to democratic norms and the rule of law. "I don’t think anyone around here can give lessons in democracy", he said recently. "What’s more, with 54% of the population living in poverty and nearly half of Peruvians without potable water, I don’t think we can even talk of democracy."

Less-inflammatory critics say Humala’s proposals are vague and that he lacks the base needed for a viable government. Like all outsiders, he is an unknown quantity. The Peruvian left are wary of him. His electoral "alliance" is made up of the small Peruvian Unity Party and the Peruvian Nationalist Party he formed ten months ago.

A Peruvian leap

Still, as he consolidates his lead in the opinion polls, many are jumping on Humala’s bandwagon. They are an eclectic mix of businesspeople and progressives, but also include some reputable political thinkers and technocrats. Humala’s candidate for vice-president, for example, is Gonzalo García Nuñez, a respected economist and director of Peru’s central bank. He lends the ticket intellectual ballast and was responsible for drawing up its manifesto.

The well-crafted eighty-four-page election document blends macroeconomic orthodoxy with imaginative social policies. Anti-inflationary policies, including central-bank independence, are much in evidence. Government spending is to be financed by increased taxation. Greater state control over the economy is promised, but wholesale nationalisations ruled out.

The document proposes extensive joint public-private investment in infrastructure. Access to credit is to be "democratised" to aid small businesses and farmers. Investment in research and development and education are priorities. Socially, emphasis is placed on "the recognition of Peru as a multicultural country". Education and services are to be made available in all of Peru’s indigenous languages. There is also a promise of adherence to, and promotion of, human-rights law.

Following Chávez in Venezuela, Humala says he wants to draw up a new constitution and reform the judiciary. However, the manifesto underlines that this will be approached gradually and in accordance with due process. The proposal doesn’t reject the free-trade treaty Lima agreed with Washington in December 2005; it does say that the agricultural clauses should be renegotiated and the final deal voted on in a plebiscite. Other points include: combating "the feminisation of poverty"; "the reduction of the inequality, vulnerability and exclusion suffered by women"; "promotion of national reconciliation"; and "solidarity with the disabled".

What no one knows is whether a Humala government will be able to fulfil these pledges. Peru doesn’t have Venezuela’s oil reserves, and investors are jittery. The specter of a military man preaching nationalism troubles many. To get the left’s full support for the second round of voting, Humala needs to prove that he hasn’t committed human-rights abuses.

What confounds international analysts is that this protest vote is coming just as Peru experiences an economic boom. The economy grew by nearly 7% in 2005. The 54% of Peruvians living in poverty have seen nothing of this bonanza, however. Export earnings soared to over $16 billion in 2005, but Peru’s illiteracy and infant-mortality rates are still among the highest in Latin America.

The journalist Ricardo Uceda describes the prospect of a Humala victory as a "leap into the void". But for Peru’s rural indigenous people, the millions of black-market workers, the labourers and the unemployed, it is a leap they are willing to take.

Justin Vogler works as a freelance journalist in Chile. He writes regularly in Diario Siete and the Santiago Times. This article by Justin Vogler was originally published on openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons Licence. If you enjoyed this article, visit openDemocracy.net for more.