LIMA, Peru – After driving their last president from office, Peruvians were choosing a new one Sunday in an election pitting a one-time shoeshine boy of native Indian descent against an ex-president returned from exile.
Alejandro Toledo, 55, a U.S.-trained economist who would be Peru's first democratically elected president with Indian roots, has played on his rags-to-riches story and his role in ending autocratic President Alberto Fujimori's decade-long rule.
His opponent in the runoff, former President Alan Garcia, 52, has used spellbinding oratory to win over Peruvians despite his calamitous 1985-90 administration, which is remembered for corruption, surging guerrilla violence, food shortages and hyperinflation.
Polls opened at 8 a.m., but Peruvians were slow in turning out to vote, with few long lines forming early in the day. It may have been a sign of voter skepticism and of Peru's damaged democracy.
Both Toledo and Garcia have serious problems of credibility. That was reflected in voter surveys that showed as many as 20 percent of voters were planning to void their ballots Sunday. Peruvians are fined if they don't show up to vote.
Enrique Bernales, a constitutional expert, warned that a large percentage of blank or spoiled ballots would produce "a weak government, with a large sector of the electorate that would rapidly turn against it."
"An important number of people are planning to vote against, instead of for, one of the candidates, and that is terrible," Bernales said.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is leading a 35-member observer mission from the National Democratic Institute and the Carter Center, also expressed concern about the antipathy toward the candidates.
"We urge all Peruvians who are eligible to go to the polls and cast their ballots to select a new president for Peru and a bright future for their country within our hemisphere's community of democracies," she said.
Apolonio Mayta, 53, who makes a precarious living peddling vegetables from a tricycle in a Lima shantytown, said he was planning to vote for Toledo.
"He headed the fight against Fujimori's corrupt government. He deserves to be president," Mayta said. "He also is an economist. I have faith he will provide jobs as he promised during his campaign."
Maria Moya, a 35-year-old divorced mother of two who is a migrant to Lima from a village in the Andes highlands, said her vote was for Garcia.
"His first government left a bad memory, but we should give him another chance," she said. "Anybody can make mistakes, and he has said he is sorry for his errors."
In recent days Garcia has narrowed the gap with Toledo, who only a few weeks ago had led most polls by as many as 20 percentage points.
A national poll released Saturday by the independent firm Apoyo predicted Toledo would win with 43 percent support, compared with 38 percent for Garcia. The poll, which surveyed 3,000 voters, had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.
Alfredo Torres, director of Apoyo, has said the vote could be tighter than the polls predict. He said there is a hidden constituency for the handsome, 6-foot-3 Garcia from Peruvians ashamed to admit they're planning to cast ballots for a man responsible for one of the most disastrous governments in Peru's history.
Garcia returned to Peru to seek re-election in January following nearly nine years of exile after corruption charges against him expired.
Analysts say his charisma and ability to transmit hope to Peruvians, especially to young voters who do not remember his government, have made the outcome of the race unpredictable.
Garcia says he has matured, learned from his mistakes and discarded the leftist ideas that tainted his government. He gives the impression of a man on a crusade to clear his name in history.
But in massive campaign rallies across this Andean nation, he has fallen back on his populist rhetoric.
He has pledged to cut telephone and electricity rates and to reduce the price of medicine, provide low-cost loans for the country's poor peasants and tighten labor legislation to protect workers.
Toledo, who overcame poverty to earn a doctorate from Stanford University, has capitalized on his dark, chiseled Indian features and short stature to appeal to a mostly poor Indian and mixed-race majority that accounts for more than 80 percent of Peru's 26 million people.
Toledo's strength comes also from his leadership role in the campaign to unseat Fujimori, whose regime collapsed in November amid mounting corruption scandals. Toledo withdrew from a runoff against Fujimori in May of last year, accusing him of planning to rig the results.
Like Garcia, Toledo campaigns largely on a populist platform. He has pledged to create 2.5 million jobs, raise salaries for public workers and lower taxes.