|Presidential front-runner Ollanta Humala has promised a better distribution of wealth in mineral rich Peru [REUTERS]
Last week, in Peru's presidential election, Ollanta Humala, a 48-year old former military officer, pulled off a stunning come-from-behind victory.
Beating his four main rivals with over 30 per cent of the vote, Humala, who has called for a fairer distribution of Peru's enviable economic growth, scares Washington and Wall Street.
Peruvians have committed "political suicide", declared a former US ambassador to the country following the vote.
Equally unnerved is Peru's Noble Laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, who often uses his considerable descriptive talents to render in subtle hues the anxieties of Lima's upper-class whites.
Since Humala didn't get 50 per cent of the vote, he will face Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of jailed ex-president Alberto Fujimori, in a June run off – a choice Vargas Llosa describes as akin to one between "AIDS and terminal cancer".
Many Peruvians, though, have worse fates in store for them than those two diseases. Despite Peru's impressive macroeconomic performance, including low inflation, over the last decade, well over thirty per cent of Peru's thirty million people live in poverty, and eight per cent in extreme poverty.
In the countryside, particularly the indigenous countryside, more than half of all families are poor, many desperately so.
Central areas in Lima, the capital, are booming. Profits skimmed off the high price of precious metals – silver, zinc, copper, tin, lead, and gold make up sixty per cent of the country's exports and finance the rise of luxury condos and malls.
But the city is also sprawling outward. Mining and other high-capital, low-labour export industries – among them, logging, petroleum, natural gas, and biofuels plantations – are ripping up the Andean highlands and Amazonian lowlands, throwing a steady number of families into Lima, where they add block after block to its perimeter.
Terminal cancer might be a concern among Vargas Llosa's condo constituency, but these economic refugees, particularly their children, are more likely to suffer shantytown diseases, including malnutrition, protein deficiency, dysentery, and drug-resistant tuberculosis. Peru ranks 23rd out of 26th in Latin America for access to waste treatment.
While all the other candidates offer variations on a theme of "more of the same", Humala promises mild reform. He pledges to improve health care for the poor and implement a means-tested pension plan for the elderly.
To pay for it, he said he will raise the taxes on mineral exports. This is hardly a radical program, but those who have grown fat off of Peru's unsustainable model of economic development view it as catastrophic.
News of Humala's first-round victory sent Peru's currency and bond prices sharply down. Opinion and policy makers in Lima and the US rushed to their keyboards to warn of "class warfare", as did the former US ambassador cited above.
The "outcome", he said, "could not have been worse". There is a saying in Latin America to describe the hysteria that overcomes elites when they hear someone suggesting a more equitable distribution of wealth: "when they sit down to dinner, they see Hugo Chavez in their soup."
Can Humala win in June? According to The Economist, polls taken before last week's election found that "more than 77 per cent of voters expressing an opinion wanted to modify the country's development model". And 37 per cent wanted radical change.
But Humala also ran strong during Peru's last election in 2006, only to have the country's entire political class join forces against him.
Recently released WikiLeaks cables reveal that establishment politicians beat a path to the door of the US embassy, asking for help in smearing Humala as an extremist and unifying his opponents. In the 2006, election, Humala won the first round but went on to lose to Alan Garcia by about five points.
This time though Humala will face the daughter of imprisoned former president Alberto Fujimori, herself a polarising figure.
Peruvian historian Gerardo Rénique notes that an "important sector of the centre-right with democratic credentials in the struggle against her father" will have a hard time pulling the lever for Keiko, especially since she has promised to pardon her father, convicted for "crimes against humanity".
Third and fourth place candidates, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and Luis Castañeda, will either endorse Fujimori or remain neutral.
But there is a possibility that former president, Alejandro Toledo, who came in fifth with sixteen per cent of the vote, might throw his support to Humala in exchange for influence in the next government.
The rise of the populist left
For his part, Humala will have to walk a fine line in the coming campaign, demonstrating that he can govern responsibly so as to capture the centre while keeping his base of poor supporters mobilised and inspired.
Like other places in the Andes, Peru has seen the reemergence of a strong, diverse social movement comprised of environmentalists, students, peasants, indigenous activists, and progressive religious folk in recent years.
In 2009, widespread indigenous protest broke out against legislation that would have opened up the Amazon to even more logging, mining, and oil drilling.
The government responded brutally, killing a number of demonstrators. But it was compelled to table the legislation.
More recently, the run up to the presidential election witnessed a number of strikes and protests, including one that forced the government to cancel a large copper mining project due to environmental concerns.
Humala points not to Hugo Chavez's Venezuela as a model but rather Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's Brazil. And indeed, Brazilian political consultants have played a large role in his campaign.
So far, the strategy seems to be working, for even Vargas Llosa, the Nobel Laureate, has said he would consider voting for Humala in the second round if he could be convinced he would govern more like Lula than Chavez.
If Humala does win, it will provide even more evidence that the ongoing threat of an in-your-face populist left in Latin America has shifted the terms of the debate, making a trade-unionist social democrat like Lula suddenly acceptable to a free-market ideologue like Vargas Llosa.
All hail the populist left
But the question as to whether Humala will be a Peruvian Hugo Chavez can best be answered by those most worried about the possibility, that is, those who hold most of Peru's wealth.
After all, Hugo Chavez, the outsider who won Venezuela's 1998 presidential election, was not Hugo Chavez, the confrontationalist, until Venezuelan elites made it clear they would be willing to destroy their country (through, among other tactics, an ill-conceived oil strike that crippled the country's economy) if it meant preserving their privilege.
Peru doesn't have much foreign debt, so holders of Peruvian bonds and credit default swaps probably don't have to worry about Humala following Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa's lead, who in 2009, successfully "repudiated" a portion of his country's debt. Correa ingeniously bought back Ecuador's discounted bonds on the secondary market, thus avoiding the kind of lawsuits that Argentina, following its default, continues to face.
And aside from trying to raise taxes and collect higher royalties on mineral exports, Humala won't move to nationalise the mining sector (unless, of course, elite obduracy provokes greater political polarisation, as it did in Venezuela).
He has, though, campaigned on a promise to convene a constitutional assembly to adopt a new charter that would prevent the privatisation of public services and resources, like water.
However moderate a program he pursues, a Humala win will have international repercussions, aligning Peru with other left Andean countries, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela.
Like Evo Morales in Bolivia, Humala counts among his constituents Peru's cocoleros, peasant coca growers hard hit by Washington's militarised and pointless "War on Drugs".
And like Morales, and Correa in Ecuador, he would probably seek some middle ground with the US, continuing to support anti-narcotics efforts to limit the cocaine trade while trying to minimise their more punitive impact on small scale coca producers.
Humala will undoubtedly tread lightly in areas of foreign policy as well. But here too he can take cover behind the more powerful Brazil, which regularly opposes Washington's positions on a range of issues, including climate change, Iran, Libya, Palestine-Israel, and Venezuela.
Even if disagreements with the US remain reasonable and minimal, the idea of yet another small country taking the ideal of sovereignty seriously is a big deal, leaving Washington alone with Colombia as its primary collaborator in the region.
The left turn that Latin America took-off a decade ago with Chavez's 1998 election in Venezuela, and which continued most recently with Dilma Rousseff's victory in Brazil last year, succeeding Lula, might still be going strong.
Greg Grandin is a professor of history at New York University and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of a number of prize-winning books, including most recently, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan 2009), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History, as well as for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.