Alan Garcia, who left Peru economically ruined when he led the country two decades ago, is now ahead in polls for the June presidential runoff but is still fighting hard to convince voters he wants “responsible change.”

Canvassing for votes along Peru’s southern coast, Garcia pledged to renegotiate Peru’s recently signed free-trade accord with the United States to benefit farmers, offered credit for the region’s depressed industries and said he would create thousands of better-paid jobs for day laborers.

“A free-trade deal is all very well, but we don’t want it if it’s going to crush our farmers and peasants,” he told reporters near Pisco, some 190 miles (300 km) south of Lima.

“Our proposal will be to renegotiate that deal,” he added as poor Peruvians thronged around him during a walkabout in the rubbish-strewn streets of the impoverished port town.

Garcia, who was president from 1985 until 1990, leads his rival, former army commander Ollanta Humala, by 56% to 44% in the race, according to a weekend Apoyo poll.

But a quarter of voters are undecided or say they will ruin their vote on June 4 because they cannot forget the hyperinflation of Garcia’s first government and say Humala’s plan to put the economy under state control is too radical.

That makes it crucial for Garcia to win over voters who did not back him in the first round in April and to connect with Peruvians who are also attracted by Humala’s radical message of revolution for the poor, political analysts say.

Garcia, whose party members have painted his “responsible change” slogan across southern Peru, where Humala also has support, appears to be getting through to some.

“Humala is full of contradictions so maybe it is time to give Garcia another chance. He says he’ll help us,” said Luis Luega, who owns a small fish processing business and who did not vote for the former president in the first round.

Garcia is seen as the most business-friendly candidate by investors. Business leaders and bond traders say he will need to ratify the free-trade deal with Washington to meet his campaign promise of 7 percent annual economic growth.

‘Best chance’

The United States is Peru’s biggest trading partner, generating 30% of the Andean nation’s $17 billion in exports last year. But the temporary duty-free access that Peru enjoys will run out at the end of this year, potentially hurting its export-led economy.

Humala has also pledged to renegotiate or scrap a US free-trade pact, although analysts see Garcia as more likely to ratify the accord because the former president depends on his support from Peru’s business sector.

“Peru needs trade and it needs investment. That will help the poor just as much,” said Carlos del Solar, president of Peru’s National Society of Mining, Petroleum and Energy, one of the country’s main business groups. “We need to be more proactive to help small businesses find new markets, not fall into populism,” he added.

Indeed, poor cotton and vegetable farmers along the southern coast called on Garcia to build an industrial park if elected to help them get higher-paying jobs in industry.

“With a farm job you work for a pittance. We deserve the best chance that Garcia can give us for a better life,” said 30-year-old day laborer Charlie Hernandez. (Reuters)