Peru May Elect Female President

Associated Press -- 27 February 2001

by Rick Vecchio

LIMA, Peru - When Lourdes Flores entered Lima's sweltering garment district on a presidential campaign stop, it was mostly women who rushed to greet her, exclaiming, ``Our time has come!''

``She's a good woman, the woman who is going to move us forward, because the men can't be trusted,'' said Magda Acuna, who sells shirts and slacks. ``They rob. They're corrupt. Women are more honest.''

Flores, 41, a former congresswoman for the right-of-center Popular Christian Party, has been a leading opponent of disgraced ex-President Alberto Fujimori. Now, in the upheaval following Fujimori's ouster in November, Flores has surged to a near tie with front-runner Alejandro Toledo in polls ahead of April 8 elections.

With none of the eight candidates likely to win outright, some polls predict Flores will defeat Toledo in a runoff.

``In this time of crisis and hope for change, many men who perhaps would normally exclude a women are saying, 'Let a woman govern,''' Flores said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Analysts say her gender helps.

Peru is enduring the sour aftertaste of videotapes showing Fujimori's spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, buying political favors with bribes to an array of election officials, lawmakers, military chiefs, businessmen and media heads.

``Women have a reputation in Peru for being more honest than men,'' says pollster Manuel Torrado. ``As of today, not one video shows a woman actually receiving a payoff from Vladimiro Montesinos.''

Torrado's firm, Datum Internacional, predicted last week that Flores would defeat Toledo by a 7 percent margin in a runoff.

He said Flores is strong among women, the middle class and young urbanites who are wary of Toledo's passionate, impulsive style and populist-tinged rhetoric.

But Toledo, an economist, maintains support, particularly from men, in the poorest sectors of the country's predominantly Indian and mixed-race majority. His promises of jobs and higher wages, coming from a man with distinctive Indian features, have struck a chord.

Toledo demonstrated last week that he is feeling the heat. Skirting an accord against negative campaigning, he accused Flores of being financed by business leaders with links to Montesinos.

A mining executive acknowledged giving Flores a $2,000 campaign contribution, but both denied the alleged connection to Montesinos.

Some analysts say Flores underscores a trend of Latin American women breaking down machismo in politics.

``Women have been rising in power in Latin America in record numbers compared to five years ago,'' said Gabriela Vega, Peruvian chief of the Inter-American Development Bank's Women in Development Unit.

Lourdes, a lawyer, ``is not a newcomer. She's been there and she's been getting ready for this her entire life,'' Vega said.

Flores, who is single, says that if elected she would break a pattern of Latin American women presidents riding the political coattails of deceased husbands. She mentions Mireya Moscoso of Panama and former Violeta Chamorro of Nicaragua.

During her 10 years in Congress, Flores sponsored legislation against domestic violence, promoted DNA testing in paternity cases and pushed through a 25 percent quota for female candidates in municipal and legislative elections.

Women's representation in Congress doubled from 13 to 26 out of 120 seats. Only Argentina's legislature has a higher female component in South America.

Flores says she was inspired at age 15 to become a lawyer when her father was imprisoned by Peru's military government. She entered politics in 1981 when her university professor was appointed justice minister.

Some of her supporters are aligned with the conservative Roman Catholic organization Opus Dei. But Peruvian presidential candidates have two running mates, and Flores are Drago Kisic, an architect of the campaign's free-market economic plan, and Jose Luis Risco, a communist trade union leader.

``I am a person who has an immense tolerance for diversity,'' Flores said. ``I believe that in a country with profound injustice and as much inequality as ours there must be a huge effort for change.''