LIMA (Reuters) - Peruvian presidential candidate Ollanta Humala’s is struggling to shed his hardline left-wing image, leaving him exposed to attacks that have already eroded his lead over his right-wing rival, Keiko Fujimori.
Discrepancies between the fiery tone of Humala’s official policy platform and the more conciliatory public image he has developed since narrowly losing the 2006 election have made him vulnerable to a barrage of daily criticism in the local media.
He is constantly accused of having a “doble discurso,” or campaign “double-talk” -- speaking out of both sides of his mouth when trying to court investors and rally the poor.
The attacks have helped Fujimori trim Humala’s advantage in opinion polls to just one percentage point from six points a month ago.
Fujimori, the daughter of jailed former President Alberto Fujimori, has even pulled ahead of Humala by two points in the Ipsos poll, one of four key surveys tracked in Peru.
If that trend holds, Peruvian asset prices -- which have been pressured by worries Humala could roll back years of free-markets reforms -- could rally before the June 5 vote as Fujimori is more trusted by investors.
Her father opened Peru’s economy to trade and slayed hyperinflation in the 1990s, though his government ultimately collapsed in a cloud of corruption and human rights abuses.
Supporters of Humala, a 48-year-old former army officer who led a revolt in 2000 to demand the elder Fujimori step down, say he has been unfairly treated by a partisan media as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Despite his harsh criticism of free-market policies, they downplay fears he would pursue statist policies that would weaken private industry and derail a boom in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
Aware that he must win over skeptical centrists and investors, Humala has brought into his team 20 experienced technocrats from the campaign of former President Alejandro Toledo, who came fourth in the first-round vote on April 10.
The expanded team has said it will release a modified policy platform as early as this week to help assuage doubts that Humala’s move to the center has been a cynical ploy.
The original, 198-page policy platform that Humala filed with election authorities is nearly the same as the one he ran on five years ago.
He has been vague about how far he will go to woo the 20 percent of voters who are still undecided -- saying the new platform will be more inclusive while stopping short of saying he will throw out some of the most radical rhetoric in the platform that appeals to his core base of supporters.
“The plan needs to be improved and broadened, that means you have to accept the opinions of other political forces,” he said on Friday, although he does not plan to drop it entirely. “It would be disrespectful to all those who voted for me.”
So far, Humala and his advisors have indicated the changes will likely focus on specific policy points, instead of the overall nationalist tone of his platform.
In one concession, Humala is likely to promise in writing to leave Peru’s $30 billion in pension funds in private hands. In speeches, he has already backed away from calls in his plan to replace private pension with a government-run system, a policy that has drawn fierce criticism.
He may also reiterate promises to run a balanced budget, respect the central bank’s independence and increase taxes on firms in the vast mining sector to make sure Peru’s growing wealth reaches the one third of voters who live in poverty.
His advisors say Humala has ruled out changing the constitution to allow him to run for a second term. Still, critics fear he could later maneuver for the right to repeatedly seek re-election, like his former political mentor, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
NEOLIBERALISM AND ‘CHEAP CHOLOS’
Even though Humala has promised to keep existing macroeconomic policies intact, much of it rails against “neoliberal” policies that have underpinned Peru’s successes, leaving investors to wonder whether he can be trusted.
His campaign platform, which critics say represents the real Humala, reads like a flashback to the 1970s, when Marxist academics encouraged Third World countries to turn inward, follow their own economic development agendas, and break their dependency on the First World.
It blames free-market economic policies implemented since the 1990s for weakening the state, mocks local elites for caring more about trends in New York than fighting poverty in rural Peru, and says the government must have a more interventionist role in the economy.
“Nationalism is a democratic alternative to neoliberal modernization,” reads one tract in his platform. “(Ours) is a program of radical political change” that frowns upon “a world dominated by monopolies and multinationals.”
Even though Peru’s poverty rate has fallen to around 34 percent from more than 50 percent in the last decade, Humala’s platform blames the free-market model for “accentuating social inequality, depleting natural resources, and violating legality and democracy while not generating development.”
It says the so-called Washington Consensus policies in Latin America -- which emphasized free-trade, privatizing state companies, and looser rules for labor and capital -- created a boom driven by commodities exports that benefited a few but left behind the many in low-wage jobs.
“The neoliberal model is based on cheap cholos,” says Humala’s plan, arguing that the country’s mestizo majority has not shared enough in economic growth.
Additional reporting by Marco Aquino; Editing by Kieran Murray