Bitterly divided, and with the hand of history weighing uneasily on their shoulders, the people of Peru went to the polls yesterday to select a new President. The race is too close to call and, regardless of the outcome, seems likely to result in an acrimonious recount and allegations of voter fraud.
The election required voters to make what observers called an "unhappy choice" between two polarising figures from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Both candidates devoted recent weeks to explaining away scandalous episodes from their past, and convincing the nation that they won't pursue an extremist agenda.
Pursuing the right-wing vote was Keiko Fujimori, the 36-year-old daughter of Alberto Fujimori, Peru's dictator throughout the 1990s. She boasts the endorsement of business leaders and the upper classes, but is tarnished by association with her father, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence for corruption and using death squads against left-leaning opponents. Her opponent is Ollanta Humala, a former soldier and one-time ally of Ven-ezuela's Hugo Chavez, who has campaigned on a broadly socialist ticket. He has been accused of committing atrocities during his military career, and must overcome suspicions that his hostility to business will derail the country's economic boom.
The final opinion poll, by Ipsos on Saturday, showed Mr Humala leading by 3.8 points, with some exit polls last night showing him ahead by three percentage points. However observers cautioned that poll data was unreliable – not least since 10 per cent of voters are expected to spoil their ballots in protest at what they see as the parlous choice of candidates.
Speaking to reporters as he went on a three-mile jog around his neighbourhood in southern Lima yesterday, Mr Humala said his team had spent recent weeks "trying to put ourselves on the same wave-length as the Peruvian people". Although he wants to increase government revenue from natural resources, and use proceeds to help the poor, he's promised not to launch Chavez-style takeovers of private companies.
Ms Fujimori, who would be Peru's first female President, has meanwhile promised a business-friendly reign that she says will protect an economy growing faster than any other in Latin America. However, critics say she has the same kleptocratic instincts as her father, who she is likely to pardon shortly after taking office, and shares many of his key advisers.
Peru has a vigorous economy, growing by 9 per cent last year.