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Flores offers 'girl power' in Peru elections

Flores offers 'girl power' in Peru elections

Lourdes Flores hops off her campaign truck and dives into a teeming market in northern Peru, drumming up votes ahead of next month's election in which she is bidding to become the country's first woman president.

She already has the vote of Carlos Palacios, a 43-year-old accountant driving a scooter with his wife on the back. "She'll be the Margaret Thatcher of South America," he mused, looking on in admiration.

Like the former British prime minister, Flores - the election sensation so far, whose rapid rise looks to be setting the stage for a showdown with front-runner Alejandro Toledo - is a right-wing free-marketeer with a no-nonsense style.

But at 41, she is younger and more natural and says her coalition, ranging from far-left union militants to capitalists via the Opus Dei arm of the Roman Catholic church, adds up to the centrist recipe needed to achieve "the Peru we all want."

Macho Peru, disgusted by corruption scandals that felled President Alberto Fujimori last November, is getting a taste of "girl power" - and many men are all for it.

"A woman would be ideal for Peru, it's time for a change," said Farias Cruz, 29. "It's not that men are worth less than women, but we need a firm hand to put the house in order."

Catnapping between stops to keep fresh, and apparently unfazed by northwest Peru's sticky summer heat, the plump lawyer and former legislator hops on and off her pickup truck as it winds through villages, attracting cars, passersby, dogs and motorized rickshaws along the route.

The dazzling smile - which, as she well knows, is one of her best weapons - never leaves her lips as she launches into pledges to fight corruption, create jobs, stimulate agriculture and open up money-spinning tourism for the dozenth time.

Predictably, women are rallying round. As Flores' convoy rumbles through one dusty village, a woman in an apron waves enthusiastically, a smile lighting up her face. Others grin and flash back the thumbs-up sign that has become a Flores trademark. In Aguas Verdes, on the border with Ecuador, women stop trimming grass along the road to wave their hoes and shears as the caravan sweeps by, horns tooting.

"You find ordinary people, women at least, coming up and saying 'Yes, we're going to win, this is the time for women,'" Flores told Reuters in a early-morning interview sandwiched into her hectic schedule. "For me it's a very emotional thing. I think if we do it, it's going to change Latin America."

THE FUJIMORI FACTOR

Flores has lately been flavor of the month in Peru, narrowing her gap with Toledo to just a handful of points. But the latest polls suggest she still has work to do: She looks stubbornly stuck on 25-28 percent, behind Toledo's 30-33 percent, a result that would set the stage for a second round runoff in May or June that polls say Toledo could win.

He is vying to be Peru's first president of Andean Indian origin after running in 2000 elections he says Fujimori stole. Amid campaign sniping, Toledo has slammed Flores for including some former Fujimori officials in her presidential lineup - something many see as denting her popularity.

Flores, who says Toledo is unreliable, has also faltered recently, revealing inexperience in the rough-and-tumble of campaign politics by hitting out at hecklers.

In style, the two rivals could hardly be more different. While Toledo pours forth passionate leftist rhetoric, promises of jobs and economic growth at mass rallies across the country, Flores is lower key, addressing hundreds, not thousands, in a campaign that looks homemade by comparison.

Her smile does not fade when a passerby thumps her truck and shouts: "Toledo's going to win," or even when she is hit in the face with green paint as her tour takes her through a village playing carnival games.

An unmarried only child who believes in families but has no children, Flores describes herself as "a good girl," and her 73-year-old father Cesar accompanies her on all her trips.

'WHAT'S IT TO YOU!'

While Flores may be good, she delights in a wickedly dry sense of humor and happily gives as good as she gets. When Jaime Bayly, one of Peru's best known novelists, asked her in a television interview if she were a virgin, she never missed a beat: "What's it to you!" she shot back, grinning.

One challenge for any candidate is to win the faith of young Peruvians, who matured under a decade of Fujimori rule now revealed to have been rotten to the core. Fujimori was fired by Congress last November after an unprecedented scandal sparked by his fugitive spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos.

Flores has spruced up her once dowdy image, changing her hairstyle and trying to wear her heavy-framed glasses less. "My advisers told me to change more but I'm a bit undisciplined ... and that sort of tension gives me a headache," she said.

Self-deprecatingly, she calls herself as "la tia" - a term meaning aunt and an insult for frumpy, middle-aged women - and set about wooing the youth vote with an Internet chat session.

She denies the "posh" tag she also attracts and is happy to acknowledge her appeal is in part because of being a woman - playing on the maternal image and the kind of respect afforded to new female traffic police, widely seen as incorruptible.

Time magazine named her in 1999 as one of 100 Ibero-American leaders of the 21st century. And in 1992, when Fujimori closed Congress in a "self-coup," a legislator was sworn in as rival president of the republic in a clandestine ceremony that was held in Flores' garden.

Now, if that baton passes to her, she will have practical problems to confront, such as bringing water to the rundown village of Cerro Moche, one of the stops on her campaign trail, which now has water only every three or four days.

"Nice words, but the reality is a long way off," said Jose, a 50-year-old farmer and one of Peru's many undecided voters.


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