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Deciding which leftist to take

Ollanta Humala; Alan Garcia

KAI RYSSDAL: Voters in Peru have a choice this weekend. They can elect a leftist in their presidential runoff. Alan Garcia's leading in the polls. Or they can elect a different leftist. Ollanta Humala won the first round a couple of months ago. If the experts are right, Sunday's vote could bring one of the least likely comebacks in Latin American political history. From the Marketplace Americas Desk at WLRN, Dan Grech has the story.


DAN GRECH: Presidential finalist Alan Garcia ran Peru once before, from 1985 to 1990. And he ran the country into the ground. His free spending bankrupted the treasury and brought food shortages and hyperinflation. Michael Shifter is with the Inter American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington, D.C. He lived in Peru during Garcia's presidency.
MICHAEL SHIFTER: His populism at that time, really showing no fiscal responsibility, fiscal restraint, contributed to a sense of complete disorder. People couldn't plan their budgets. They didn't know what the prices would be like in another week or so. There was a sense of tremendous insecurity.

And not just financial insecurity. Under Garcia, Shining Path guerillas grew in power and began to attack the capital, Lima - a development many blamed on his political ineptitude. Despite all this, Garcia is now the odds-on favorite to win Sunday's election in Peru. This unlikely resurrection can be credited directly to his opponent, Ollanta Humala. Humala promises to nationalize mining and natural gas and cut off ties to the US. In April, Humala won the first round of the election. But since then his radical ideas have spooked the electorate.

Carol Wise is a professor at the University of Southern California. She says Humala's part of a venerable tradition in Latin America: the flash candidate.

CAROL WISE Several years back in Venezuela, Miss Universe was running first in the polls. Brazil's had it's spree with talk show hosts. But they got over that, right? They didn't elect those people. Humala to me is not much better than a talk show host or a Miss Universe. This is probably the worst candidate the country has seen in 100 years.

Humala's closely linked his political fortunes with Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez. That's gotten under the skin of Peruvians, who value their national independence above all. Garcia, in contrast, has stood up to Chavez.

Stephen Johnson is a Latin American specialist with the Heritage Foundation in Washington. He says challenging Chavez is not the only reason Garcia's made a comeback.

STEPHEN JOHNSON: Mr. Garcia's an old-style wheeler-dealer politician. He speaks pretty well and he's got a party machine that can crank out the votes.

Johnson says those votes are coming despite Garcia's spotty record.

JOHNSON: I think a lot of people have forgotten about 7,000-percent raging inflation and the lines for bread and sugar rations that were common the last two years of his administration.

Alan Garcia insists he's learned from his mistakes. He says he'll keep the free-market policies that have kept Peru's economy growing at 5 percent. But he hasn't lost his populist touch. His left wing platform includes lowering utility rates and imposing a windfall tax on mining companies. That wins him support among the poorest, but has others worried that Garcia's second administration could be as disastrous as his first.

Michael Shifter:

SHIFTER: That's the big question: How much has Garcia actually changed? I think clearly that he'd want to redeem himself. You wouldn't want your legacy to be that you were the most unpopular and most disastrous president not only in Peruvian history but perhaps in Latin American history. This is a second chance, this is a second opportunity.

For the Peruvian electorate, there are opportunities, too. There are also risks. Whether Garcia or Humala triumphs Sunday, this could be the biggest presidential gamble they've ever taken.

I'm Dan Grech for Marketplace.

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