Few count out contender for Peruvian presidency
Bold style, opponents' miscues improve Alan García's chances
BY LUCIEN CHAUVIN
Special to The Herald
LIMA -- Smiling from a stage in a sprawling Lima park with supporters waving his photo and loudspeakers blasting songs written about him, Alan García knows he is the luckiest man in Peru.
García is running for president of Peru and, while most polls have him trailing, no one is counting him out in the weeks remaining before the country's 15 million voters cast ballots in a runoff election pitting him against Alejandro Toledo.
The election was not supposed to turn out this way. While voters
still remember García's disastrous first term as president (1985-90),
missteps by his opponents and
García's own blend of fiery rhetoric and homegrown populism allowed him to move from near the bottom of the polls in January to second place in the first round of voting April 8.
``Alan García has never fallen in the polls, slowly inching his way up. He never expected to do this well,'' says Manuel Torrado, of the Datum International polling firm. ``He needs to thank his opponents for their mistakes.''
Toledo was an overwhelming favorite coming into the election after finishing second to Alberto Fujimori in last year's controversial presidential balloting. Allegations of fraud in that election began a swirl of controversy that ended with Fujimori's resignation and flight to Japan, leaving Toledo with an apparently clear route to the presidential palace.
Instead, Toledo has had to battle charges ranging from fathering
an illegitimate child and using drugs to mishandling large sums of money
donated to his campaign last
year. The accusations about Toledo's personal life have been around for some time with only limited effect, but the corruption accusation is new and is taking a toll on his support.
He has been accused of pocketing a $1 million campaign donation
from U.S. financier George Soros during last year's election. And he is
also facing harsh questions
$600,000 in other campaign funds that was transferred from a Lima bank to his nephew's bank account in North Carolina.
Polls show that, more than any of the personal problems, Toledo must explain his campaign finances, says Torrado.
In the most recent poll by the University of Lima, Toledo has 34.7 percent support, García 23.6 percent and undecided voters or those saying they'll cast blank ballots make up the rest. Voting in Peru is mandatory.
There are many reasons why García was not expected to have so much support as Peruvians prepare to vote in the runoff, tentatively scheduled for June 3. García was elected in 1985 at age 35, Peru's youngest president, and his five-year term was one of the most turbulent in the country's modern history.
Inflation was on four digits, food lines were the norm, corruption and drug trafficking were rampant, terrorism had more than half the country under a state of emergency and the international community closed its doors after García defaulted on Peru's foreign debt.
Alberto Fujimori replaced him in 1990 and, while García's American Popular Revolutionary Alliance supported the new president early on, the relationship quickly soured. When Fujimori declared a state of emergency and grabbed power in 1992, closing Congress and the judiciary, criminal charges of corruption were filed against García.
García was forced underground and eventually granted political asylum by Colombia in 1992. He lived in exile between Colombia and France for nearly nine years, before returning to Peru in late January.
`THE FIRST VICTIM'
``I was the first victim of the Fujimori dictatorship,'' he says.
``The government used all its power, the corrupt press and politicized
justice system to destroy me. I am
swimming against 10 years of discredit.''
The political crisis that ended Fujimori's political career last year and the accusations against Toledo, coupled with fading memories, have dulled the anti-García feelings here. And García has used his fine-tuned political skills to push the economic buttons that have shaped the campaign.
``García has focused attention on pocket-book issues, which has attracted support from voters who feel they paid a high price for Fujimori's administration,'' says Augusto Alvarez, of the Apoyo polling company.
On the campaign trail García has promised to lower telephone
and electricity rates and keep the water service in government hands. His
newest battle is the price of
medicine; he's offering to cut the price of medication by at least 50 percent. He also calls for a state-run farmers' bank and government support for the small business
He tempers these pledges with dark talk about the Peruvian economy, which has been in a recession since 1997 and has sunk further during the political crisis.
García criticizes Toledo for promising 6-percent economic growth and lower taxes, saying problems in the world economy will not make a local recovery easy. His party says the economy will only grow by a modest 2 percent in the first year of an APRA government.
He promises to pay the foreign debt and respect foreign investment, trying to calm business fears that he will make rash decisions, like the 1988 idea of nationalizing the country's banking system.
García's personal charisma has also helped. In the first round, he refused to attack his opponents and his low-budget ad campaign, including a TV spot where he sings a well-known 1950s ballad (Se Llama Peru, it's called Peru) helped boost his image.
In a Datum poll on the personal qualities of candidates in the first round, García ranked the most likable. On the other hand, voters in the same survey also ranked him as the biggest liar in the race.
But an increasing number of them seem to be willing to let bygones by bygones.
``I never thought I would vote for García, but he looks better each day,'' says Ricardo Vásquez, a young bank teller in Lima. ``The only thing we can do is hope that he has changed.''