Peruvians head to the polls on Sunday in a presidential election dominated by painful memories of serial human rights abuses and an out-of-control kleptocracy, as well as nostalgia for the strong leadership of those times.
The clear frontrunner, Keiko Fujimori, is the daughter of Alberto Fujimori who was president between 1990 and 2000. He is still revered by many Peruvians, especially in poorer rural areas, for defeating the brutal Shining Path rebels, and taming a severe economic crisis.
The former president is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence for ordering the extrajudicial killings of terrorism suspects and other major crimes. He is also notorious for presiding over the disappearance of hundreds of millions of dollars of public money, and using tanks to close down the congress.
Opinion polls indicate that Keiko, as she is universally known, is almost certain to win Sunday's vote but is unlikely to obtain the 50 percent she would need to avoid facing the second-placed candidate in a runoff vote on June 5. The key question of the election has consequently come who will win that second place, with pre-election surveys showing two candidates neck and neck.
One is Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a 77-year-old business-friendly former prime minister. The other is Verónika Mendoza, a 35-year-old leftist congresswoman who blasts Peru's corruption and poverty. Mendoza, however, appears to have the momentum. Little known a few months ago, she has surged in recent weeks while Kuczynski, who has been a prominent political player for decades, has seen his support level off.
Still focused on securing a clear victory in the first round, Keiko closed her campaign by making controversial new policy pledges to a rally of several thousand supporters outside a soccer stadium on the outskirts of Lima on Thursday night.
They included a pledge to allow hundreds of thousands of illegal miners — accused of causing widespread pollution in the Andes and Amazon — to continue their work without obtaining official permits."The state that we have at the moment is a state that persecutes, a state that puts up barriers," she told the cheering crowd. "I have seen this with small entrepreneurs, for example, with informal miners."
That promise is a throwback to the policies of her disgraced father, whose ultra-conservative government was marked by an uncompromising commitment to the free market. This included the near total deregulation of transport, allowing anyone with a car to pick up passengers and charge for rides. The result, critics say, is that Lima is arguably Latin America's most chaotic capital and Peru has South America's highest rate of deaths from road accidents per vehicle.
Keiko also promised to crack down on violent crime by reconvening the armed civilian neighborhood patrols that helped her father's government defeat the Maoist Shining Path rebels, who killed 31,000 people.
Assuming a second round runoff is necessary, pollsters say that vote is particularly difficult to predict. Though Keiko would start as the favorite, it is possible that the strong current of public opinion against the return of Fujimorismo, estimated at about half of the electorate, could coalesce around her rival.
Polls simulating a runoff have put Kuczynski, the businessman, in a statistical dead heat with Keiko. They put Mendoza, the left winger who is a tougher critic of Fujimorismo, losing to her by between five and 10 points.
But those numbers could vary drastically over time, particularly if Mendoza, whose French mother participated in the 1968 Paris student protests, is able to assuage concerns over her statist economic policies, and build a coalition with centrist and center-right players. At her closing rally, in a downtown Lima plaza, Mendoza vowed to slash tax breaks for big business. She also attacked the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP — the mega-free trade deal being negotiated between Pacific rim nations accounting for 40 percent of the global economy.
Kuczynski, meanwhile, held his closing rally in the highland city of Cusco. He said illegal miners would have to register but would also be given support to stop polluting the environment.
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