Bitter battle over Peru presidency

Peruvian voters face a stark choice in Sunday's presidential run-off between Keiko Fujimori, heir to an authoritarian president jailed for rights abuses and Ollanta Humala, a leftist ex-military man.

Almost 20 million voters in the mineral-rich nation stretching from the Pacific to the Andes and the Amazon must choose between the two most extreme candidates who won through an April first round but failed to win outright.
Humala, 48, and Fujimori, a 36-year-old right-wing congresswoman, have both appealed to around one third of the population still living in poverty despite a decade of economic growth.

Fujimori benefits from die-hard supporters of her father Alberto Fujimori - the iron-fisted president of the 1990s now jailed for corruption and rights abuses during a clampdown on leftist guerrillas but also remembered for reining in hyperinflation.

She served as Peru's first lady aged 19 after her parents separated and regularly refers to her father, even including his picture on campaign posters.

Surrounded by many of his allies, many fear she will follow in his footsteps and also try to free him if elected as Peru's first female president.

"I'm the candidate, not Alberto Fujimori. If you want to debate with me, challenge my ideas," she insisted in a televised presidential debate.

Nationalist Humala first came to prominence in 2000 when he led a short-lived military rebellion against former president Fujimori.

"Are you going to return the massive amounts of money which were stolen from the Peruvian people?" Humala asked Fujimori during the debate, referring to her father's "dictatorship."

Humala first stood for election in 2006, when he received loud support from Venezuela's anti-liberal leader Hugo Chavez before narrowly losing in the second round.

The media has played up ties between Humala and Chavez even though he has moderated his leftist image and now cites Brazil's former president Lula da Silva as inspiration.

His repeated rewriting of his platform, in a bid to appease investors, has increased uncertainty over how he would rule.

Around half the electorate who backed more moderate candidates in the first round prepared for an impossible choice Sunday.

The last official opinion polls showed a virtual tie, taking into account margins of error, with Fujimori slightly ahead.

Business leaders and most of the media threw their support behind Fujimori, expecting her to maintain free-market policies.

But artists and intellectuals such as Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargos Llosa - who compared a Fujimori-Humala runoff to a choice between cancer and AIDS - opted for Humala, fearing that Fujimori would destroy Peru's fledgling democracy by returning to corruption and abuses seen under her father.

The increasingly polarized second round was marked by corruption allegations, demos and violence in Humala's southern bastion of Puno, where activists protesting mining operations even threatened to block the vote.

"Peru's in for some rough times ahead. It will be a challenge to calm the waters and shift from this intense polarization," said Jo-Marie Burt, a political science professor and Peru expert at George Mason University in the United States.

The campaign closes Thursday in Lima, home to around one third of voters, and polling stations open at 8:00 am (1300 GMT) Sunday.

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