Humala faces his first scandal in Peru

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 21, 2011 6:49 PM
Humala faces his first scandal in Peru

LIMA (Reuters) - Peru's popular president, Ollanta Humala, is facing the first major test of his term as Omar Chehade, one of his two vice presidents, is investigated for corruption and critics demand the official step down.

Claims that Chehade asked a police general to help his brother evict workers from a cooperative farm to benefit a private company have threatened Humala's image as an anti-corruption crusader and could dent his high approval rating of 62 percent.

Humala broke five days of silence on the scandal on Thursday, saying he backed investigations by the attorney general and Congress.

But Humala, who leads a center-left government, said he would wait for results of the inquiries before deciding Chehade's fate.

Below are three ways the scandal could play out:

HUMALA FIRES CHEHADE

In the unlikely event Humala changes his mind and asks Chehade to step down, the president would look like a strong leader committed to stamping out corruption, which was one of his campaign promises.

Humala has adopted a reserved governing style, declining interviews, giving few speeches and preferring to let his prime minister take the spotlight. Taking a firm stand on Chehade would make him look more assertive and in control of his presidency.

But asking Chehade to resign could be difficult for Humala because he may feel personally indebted to him.

Chehade, a lawyer, defended Humala against allegations of torture and human rights abuses stemming from when he fought Shining Path rebels in the jungle region of Madre Mia in the 1990s. The allegations never led to formal charges and were ultimately dropped. Humala, a former army officer, has made respecting human rights a key tenet of his government.

CHEHADE RESIGNS

Although Chehade has said he asked for no favors and says he has a clear conscience, he could still resign to prevent the scandal from further hurting Humala's presidency.

A quick resignation would be interpreted by voters as tantamount to a firing and could help consolidate Humala's reputation as a leader who will not tolerate corruption.

Ending the scandal quickly is in the interest of Humala's Gana Peru party, which has scored early legislative victories in Congress.

A departure by Chehade would be symbolically important but not hurt institutional stability as Peru's constitution affords Humala two vice presidents.

HUMALA WAITS FOR INVESTIGATIONS

Attorney General Jose Palaez has said the investigation he is leading could last up to 120 days, although it would likely be shorter if witnesses cooperate.

The high approval rating of Humala, the most popular Peruvian leader in years, could slip if the scandal remains on the front pages of the local press, more damning evidence is revealed, or links are made to other Gana Peru officials.

A protracted scandal could effectively end the political honeymoon he has enjoyed since taking office in July.

Three parties in Congress -- led by Fuerza 2011, whose nominee, Keiko Fujimori, narrowly lost to Humala in the June 5 election -- have tried to seize on the scandal.

They hope to dent Humala's approval rating and weaken his party in Congress.

Columnists say Humala will be hurt if he appears to dither while the inquiries proceed.

"This presidential prudence can be interpreted as weakness, inconsistency, or as a misguided loyalty to his former attorney in the Madre Mia case," wrote columnist Enrique Castillo in the newspaper Gestion.

(Reporting by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Terry Wade and Peter Cooney)