As political makeovers go, Peruvian presidential contender Ollanta Humala's has been striking. The former army officer backed a military coup in 2005, and was the consummate outsider during his first bid for Peru's highest office a year later. He ran proudly as a fiercely anti-system candidate and a self-proclaimed admirer of Venezuela's populist, leftist president Hugo Chávez, losing a runoff by 5 percent to current president Alan Garcia. In 2011, however, Humala has tried to make the case that he is the epitome of prudence and moderation, portraying himself less as a Peruvian Chávez as the second coming of Brazil's wildly popular former president Luiz Iniacio Lula da Silva. The question is: Will Peruvians buy the conversion?
The answer will come on June 5, when Humala, 48, faces Keiko Fujimori in a runoff election. Fujimori, a 35 year-old congresswoman, carries her own baggage: She is the daughter of Alberto Fujimori, Peru's president during the 1990s, who is now serving a 25-year prison sentence for human rights violations and corruption. But with Fujimori doing her best to cast doubt on her rival's claims and instill fear about him taking the reins in Peru, Humala's true beliefs are under greater scrutiny than ever before.
The strategy appears to be working: the latest poll by DATUM shows that she has reversed the narrow lead once held by Humala and now enjoys a slight edge of just under 4 percent (with 13.8 percent still undecided or planning to leave their ballots blank). According to the survey, over 55 percent of Peruvians believe that, if elected, Humala would rule Peru as Chávez has in Venezuela by nationalizing private companies and scaring off new investors. Peruvians are notoriously wary (with good reason) of political promises after numerous corruption scandals that have stained politicians of all stripes, and are similarly skeptical of one of Fujimori's principal pledges -- that, if elected, she would not pardon her father. Less than 25 percent believe her.
Neither Fujimori nor Humala was the preferred candidate for most international investors. Both have taken pains to show their support for market-friendly policies. But given the choice, Fujimori is widely seen as less risky and more reassuring to the markets. The polling results and markets have tracked closely. Humala's initial advantage led to a sharp drop in the markets and the Peruvian currency which have recovered with Fujimori now taking the lead.
There is no mystery why Humala wants Peruvians to associate him with Lula, who left office in January with an 80 percent approval rating. The former labor leader turned globalization champion was unique in his ability to straddle the ideological spectrum, a gift that endeared him to the working class, but didn't alienate the elite business community. Lula also delivered concrete results for Brazilians, lifting some 30 million people out of poverty in his eight years in office and catapulting the country to its undisputed global status.
Humala's ostensible change of heart may be sincere and not merely an electoral ploy, but there is surely a strong smell of opportunism in his abrupt metamorphosis. And the comparison with Lula is notably specious. After all, Lula's political thinking evolved over decades: a product of his experience as a union leader, opponent of Brazil's military dictatorship, and head of the Workers Party. His democratic credentials -- the practiced art of give and take -- were earned and shaped through a series of political battles. Indeed, Lula only reached the presidency on his fourth try.