The Peruvian presidential election has shown what ordinary people, given voice by imaginative political leadership, can achieve in a democratic polity. With the incumbent, Alan García Pérez, constitutionally barred from contesting a second consecutive term, the campaign has been dominated by the leftist Ollanta Humala — a former army officer who had made a quiet start but then forged ahead by focussing on the country's huge inequalities and rampant corruption. With about 96 per cent of the votes counted, Mr. Humala led by 31.8 per cent to 23.4 per cent for Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the authoritarian former President Alberto Fujimori (currently serving a 25-year prison term for his involvement in death squads and corruption), and 18.7 per cent for former Prime Minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. As for the key issues, the huge inequalities persist despite 7 per cent aggregate growth, which is driven mainly by the exploitation of mineral resources. A third of the 29-million population lives in poverty, one fifth lacks access to running water, and one child in five is malnourished. The poor also suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change and Mr. Humala's rivals have had no option but to promise action. Former President Alejandro Toledo, who is also a candidate, says companies do not have a blank cheque to pollute. Mr. Kuczynski calls for an end to violence over the Southern Copper Corporation's $1 billion project in Arequipa province. The company has now suspended work.

Although all indications are that Mr. Humala will not win outright and the presidential contest will go into a runoff round on June 5, his commitments such as state ownership of natural resources are in line with a powerful social-democratic trend across the whole of Latin America. No fewer than nine major countries in this region have elected Left or centre-left leaders since 1999 — from Hugo Chávez of Venezuela to Cristina Kirchner of Argentina — in response to the political and economic destruction wrought by decades of brutal dictatorships and economic policies enforced by international financial institutions. The progressive policies have led to heartening social outcomes. On a continent that has some of the world's worst inequalities, primary school completion rates are now close to 100 per cent. Robust counter-cyclical government spending has mitigated the effects of the global economic crisis. Further, bodies such as the Union of South American Nations have strengthened multilateral cooperation. Latin America's working people are asserting their priorities in no uncertain terms and there are lessons here for developing countries in Asia and Africa.

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