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Peru Faces Choices in Presidential Vote

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Coming up, how math keeps your computer secure. But first, Peru's election is heading toward a very close finish. The most recent polls show the three top candidates seem to be running neck and neck. A fiery Leftist leader in the mold of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has a slight edge over a pro-business woman and former president, at least according to the polls, but there will almost certainly have to be a run-off in May between the two top contenders. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in Lima.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

By law every Peruvian of an eligible age is required to vote this Sunday. That means that everyone has an opinion on who should be the next President of this Andean nation. But with 20 candidates in the running and three main contenders with very different visions in the lead, Peruvians are divided on what they want for the future. But one thing many of them share is a desire for change.

Doing some last-minute shopping on a busy street, Isabelle Dipenios(ph) said that many Peruvians have been disappointed by the government of the current president, Alejandro Toledo(ph).

Ms. ISABELLE DIPENIOS (Resident, Peru): (Through translator) We've had such a sad government these past few years, a government that's left so much to be desired. It offered so much, but in the end it gave us nothing. So we don't want more of the same.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fritz Du Bois is the manager of the Peruvian Institute of Economics.

Mr. FRITZ DU BOIS (Manager, Peruvian Institute of Economics): In principle, our numbers look relatively adequate. You know, over the last 13 years, Peru has grown on an average of four and half percent. So it would seem that we are to have a fully-satisfied population. The problem in Peru is that we have a very young population. The workforce grows at two and half percent per year.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So enter on the national stage here Ollanta Humala, a former military man who is promising to put the poor first, protect his country's natural resources and rip up any free trade agreements with the United States. It's a message that has Humala in the lead. His opponents accuse him of populism, authoritarianism and plans that will wreck Peru's economy.

But at a pro-Humala rally in the capital, supporter Alberto DeNaraja(ph) says the people are tired of seeing deals signed and accords struck but never feeling the benefits.

Mr. ALBERTO DeNARAJA (Humala Supporter): (Through translator) He's saying that, what I wanna say to the American public is I don't want them to see in Latin America what's happening here, as a people who are trying to oppose North America. What we want, what we want simply is that we, here in Peru and in all the other countries of Latin America can develop in the same way that America has developed, on the same terms.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Another leftist leader, Alan Garcia(ph), is also doing well in the polls. He's a former President whose tenure was marked by hyperinflation. He's promising many of the same things as Humala, but with a new pledge of fiscal responsibility. Uva Aginada(ph) thinks he's the man for the job.

Mr. UVA AGINADA (Alan Garcia Supporter): (Through translator) I think that there's been a lot of time between when he was President and now. He's learned a lot and he's taking what he's learned and he's returning it to the people here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Campaigning has been fierce and Humala's meteoric rise and Garcia's surprise comeback have changed the language of the debate here; despite accusing them of populist tactics, the right of center candidate, Lourdes Flores, has also been trying to lure the support of the poor.

In a lower middle-class neighborhood, frozen fish is being handed out in plastic bags, courtesy of Flores' campaign. Waiting in line is Rosa Garcia; she wants the free fish, but she says she's skeptical about all the candidates.

Ms. ROSA GARCIA: (Through translator: It should always be like this, and not only when there are elections. The truth is when they get to the top, they forget about the people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a high-stakes vote. Inside Peru people are sharply divided between hope and fear. Outside the country, Washington and anxious investors are nervous of yet another swing to the left. And Venezuela and Bolivia are waiting to see if they will have a new ally in their camp of homegrown populist leaders.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News. Lima, Peru. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.