LIMA, Peru – With the daughter of Peru's jailed former strongman the runaway favorite to get the most votes in Sunday's election, all eyes are on the race for second place and the right to face Keiko Fujimori in an expected presidential runoff.
Polls for months have shown Fujimori with a double-digit lead over her nearest rival among 10 presidential candidates, but not getting the 50 percent support needed to win outright and avoid a June 5 runoff between the two top vote-getters.
In a dead heat for second are former Wall Street investor Pedro Kuczynski and leftist congresswoman Veronika Mendoza.
Analysts say that whichever of the two emerges might have a shot in a second round of balloting because of how polarizing a figure Fujimori is among Peruvians, who either adore her father for defeating Maoist-inspired rebels and taming hyperinflation or loathe him for human rights abuses and ordering tanks to shut down Congress in 1992.
Almost half of Peruvians say they'll never vote for anyone associated with former President Alberto Fujimori, who governed from 1990 to 2000, and is serving a 25-year sentence for authorizing death squads and corruption. Voting is mandatory in Peru.
In a bid to project a more moderate image, the center-right Keiko Fujimori has sworn not to pardon her father if elected. But opponents have taken to the streets by the thousands to denounce what they said will be a return of authoritarian rule if she is elected.
Adding even more bitterness to the election, two candidates including Fujimori's strongest rival were barred from the race by Peru's electoral tribunal for campaign violations or technicalities, decisions questioned by the Organization of American States.
Polls released in the past week show the race for second place tightening, with some for the first time giving an ascendant Mendoza the edge.
Of the two main challengers, Mendoza represents the biggest shift from the status quo under President Ollanta Humala, who is prevented by the constitution from seeking a second, consecutive term. An admirer of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Mendoza fell out with Humala's government over its crackdown on anti-mining protesters.
While corruption scandals and economic stress sparked by the end of the commodities boom has pushed much of South America to the right, as evidenced by the defeat of leftist candidates in Argentina and Venezuela, polls show that more than half of Peruvians are clamoring for more state intervention in the economy — just the sort of proposal that Mendoza favors.
If elected, she's vowed to radically change the pro-business economic model that propelled record growth over the past decade by ramping up spending and reducing Peru's dependence on extraction of natural resources that she says degrade the environment. Peru is among the world's top three silver producers.
Amid the polarization, Kuczynski has tried to position himself as the candidate of the center who says he will avoid the dangers of the two "extremes." But the 77-year-old investor favorite has been dogged by his service to past governments and Peruvians' preference for outsider candidates. Three of Peru's last four presidents had never run for any office before being elected.
Further undermining Peruvians' faith in their democracy was the last-minute decision by electoral authorities to expel two candidates from the race. Both were kicked out on technical grounds but the timing of the decision, a month before voting, has fueled speculation Keiko Fujimori or another candidate may have been pulling the strings.
The OAS urged the candidates' reinstatement to avoid a "semi-democratic election."
Also up for grabs on Sunday are all 130 seats in Peru's congress.
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia contributed to this report.
Franklin Briceno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/franklinbriceno. His work can be found at: http://bigstory.ap.org/author/franklin-briceno