Opinion polls in Peru are now showing Ollanta Humala to be rivalling Lourdes Flores in the race for the presidency; some polls even put him in the lead. How are we to explain the sudden eruption of this relatively unknown candidate on the political scene? A number of explanations suggest themselves:

  • The depth of disillusionment felt by the average voter, especially the poor voter, towards Peru’s traditional parties – Humala’s support could be a protest vote against them.
  • The economic growth experienced in recent years has not benefited the majority of the population in any shape or form. Social inequalities have probably increased. This increases the disillusionment of the poorer voters.
  • Fujimori is barred from running, while he commands considerable support, especially among poorer voters. Humala is picking up on this.
  • The failure of left-wing parties to present a clear and convincing alternative to the predominant model that privileges the private sector.
  • The moral support that Humala is receiving from outside Peru, especially Venezuela. President Toledo’s protestations about Venezuela involving itself in Peruvian domestic affairs probably gives the Humala bandwagon a further push. The election victory of Evo Morales in Bolivia also helps raise his profile.

Who is Humala? The Humala brothers – Ollanta and Antauro – have a military background. They first gained prominence because of the abortive coup they staged against Fujimori in September 2000. After Fujimori’s fall, two months later, they were pardoned. Ollanta, a former commander in the Peruvian army, became military attaché in Paris and then in Seoul. Antauro stayed in Peru, organising the so-called ‘etnocacerista’ movement. The main support base for etnocacerismo was among disgruntled junior members of the armed forces. It took a strongly nationalistic position, especially towards the United States. It also sought to stoke up racial tensions in Peru. With Ollanta still abroad, Antauro organised a rising in Andahuaylas at New Year 2005. He has since been in jail. Last year, Ollanta Humala returned to Peru, announcing his intention to run for the presidency.

What is Humala? Ideologically, Humala is something of an enigma. His military background tells us something, but since announcing his candidacy he has sought to promote left-wing credentials. However, attempts to forge alliances with Patria Roja and the Partido Socialista (formerly the Partido Democratico Descentralista) failed and he has distanced himself from his brothers within the etnocacerista movement. He is a product largely of the opinion polls. His rapid rise in the polls – from virtually zero three months ago to nearly 30% now – has suddenly turned him into a political star.

What would a Humala government do? The question is hard to answer, since his political platform is still very vague. His force derives more from his opposition to the status quo than to a clear strategy for changing Peru. The position he adopts is primarily nationalist (especially towards the US and Chile), statist (he opposes privatisation) and illiberal (in both the economic and political sense). On human rights, his position has been equivocal. But his sudden rise in the polls at the expense of other candidates has meant that he is an attractive proposition for a number of other ambitious political figures keen to ride on his coat-tails.