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April 3, 2006 3:00 am
Ollanta Humala recently made a dramatic exit from a rally in Comas, a poor neighbourhood in northern Lima. The front-runner in the race to be Peru's next president stood legs astride on the roof of his campaign car and waved to an ecstatic crowd, his feet held down by four aides as the vehicle sped off.
A few months ago, Mr Humala, 42, a former army officer and radical nationalist, was generally considered too extreme to become president and was registering single-digit support in the polls.
Now his march towards power seems all but unstoppable. He may not win the more than 50 per cent necessary to claim victory in the first round of elections on Sunday but the smart money is on his triumphing in the second round run-off.
Foreign investors and financial markets are jittery about the prospect. Mr Humala proposes nationalising "strategic sectors", a windfall tax on foreign mining companies, a veto on a trade agreement with Washington and an end to US-sponsored eradication of coca, the raw material for cocaine.
Mr Humala was raised by revolutionary nationalist parents in a middle-class Lima suburb and emerged as a national figure in 2000 when, as a lieutenant-colonel, he led an uprising against Alberto Fujimori, the former president, and Vladimiro Montesinos, the Machiavellian figure who ran the intelligence services. At the time, he was heralded by La Republica newspaper as brave and decisive.
The coup failed but it changed Mr Humala's life. "My campaign for the presidency began then," he told the Financial Times last week. "Until then, my family had a political discourse but I didn't."
When Mr Fujimori fled the country a year later, Mr Humala was pardoned and sent to Paris as a military attaché. He attended classes at the Sorbonne, having been a French-speaking alumnus of Lima's Franco-Peruvian College. He became enamoured of France and cites Charles de Gaulle as a hero.
The car-top electioneering highlights Mr Humala's sense of the theatrical, also illustrated by his increasing preference for entering towns along the campaign trail on a horse and departing the stage on the shoulders of burly security guards, presenting images of action and derring-do.
He is helped by the fact that he is more handsome and much trimmer than his two nearest rivals, the pro-free market Lourdes Flores and Alan García, the former president.
But Mr Humala has not shown great energy. Compared with that of Ms Flores, his campaign schedule has been lethargic. He has forgone politicking on recent weekends, preferring to relax at the beach. On a campaign trip to southern Peru last week, he cancelled a walkabout and spent the afternoon in his hotel. The next morning, he slept in for an hour while local aides and media waited.
If his campaign has been as much about fatigue as fatigues, it may be because he has spent a lot of time fending off friendly fire. Isaac, his father, has called for the release of incarcerated leaders of Shining Path, the vicious Maoist guerrilla group. Elena, his mother, said gays should be shot. The next day Mr Humala ordered them both to be quiet until after April 9.
Ulises, his older brother, is running against him for the presidency while Antauro, his younger brother - in prison for leading a failed rebellion in 2005 - said all broadcasting companies should be nationalised. Mr Humala called him "crazy". Recently, Daniel Abugattas, his spokesman, called Eliane Karp, Peru's first lady, a "daughter of a bitch". He was promptly sacked.
Mr Humala has also been accused of human rights abuses, anti-Semitism and financial links with Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader. He has faced a concerted media campaign against him and his party has been plagued by infighting.
But none of this has prevented the inexorable rise of "the Teflon candidate". The main reason has been his ability to tap into widespread resentment towards the political and economic elite.
If Mr Humala's family has been an irritant, his wife Nadine, a constant companion on the stump, may be his greatest asset. Unlike Ms Karp, who is almost as widely hated as Alejandro Toledo, the president, Nadine plays an important role behind the scenes and has the potential to become a Peruvian Evita.
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