Peru's presidential election
Still wide open


IN PERU'S closely fought presidential race, the televised debate held on April 3rd was the candidates' last opportunity to change the course of the campaign decisively before the vote on April 10th. In the past six months, four different candidates have taken the lead in the polls. The current front-runner is Ollanta Humala, the only left-winger in the race, who has surged to first place in six different nationwide surveys, with an average support of 24%. He is followed by Alejandro Toledo, a former president who finished second in three of the most recent polls; Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a former World Bank official and finance minister, who was the runner-up in two more; and Keiko Fujimori, the second-place finisher in one survey, whose father is another former president, Alberto Fujimori. The top two candidates in the first round will advance to a run-off scheduled for June 5th. The polls suggest Mr Humala would lose in a head-to-head matchup against any of his main rivals, meaning that if he comes in first next week, the presidency will probably go to whichever candidate finishes second.

Given the closeness of the contest, a particularly strong or weak showing in the last of the campaign's three debates could have easily determined who makes it to the second round. As it happened, however, they battled to a draw. "Nothing happened", read the headline of Peru 21, a daily newspaper.

If anyone came out ahead, it was probably either Mr Humala or Ms Fujimori—candidates that Mario Vargas Llosa, the country's Nobel-winning novelist, has compared to a choice between cancer and AIDS. In 2006 Mr Humala won the first round but lost the run-off, thanks to his fiery rhetoric and ties to Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's leftist president. This time, he traded in his red campaign shirts for a grey suit and steel-blue tie, spoke fondly of free markets and cited World Bank reports to support his points. Although he looked stilted while delivering his pre-prepared responses, he avoided gaffes that the hostile media could hold against him. He refused to respond to Mr Toledo's repeated efforts to paint him as a lightweight version of Mr Chávez.

At 35, Ms Fujimori is the youngest candidate. Nonetheless, she is running on experience—that of her father. In the debate, she made repeated references to the massive give-away programmes and anti-terrorism efforts that once made him wildly popular. She somehow managed to sidestep any discussion of the fact that he is now serving a lengthy jail sentence for corruption and human-rights abuses.

The other candidates made less of an impression. Mr Toledo has been hounded by accusations of substance abuse, and Mr Kuczynski claims to offer Mr Toledo's policies without the personal baggage. Both of them stuck to their main talking points from the campaign so far, as did Luis Castañeda, the former mayor of Lima, Peru's capital, who is now in fifth place.

Despite the country's rapid economic growth, voters are disenchanted with Alan García, the current president, whose party has not even presented a candidate to succeed him. Too little of Peru's newfound prosperity has reached the poor, partly because corruption is endemic, and crime is on the rise. In a country with stronger parties, the opposition might be set to sweep to power. But Peru's political fragmentation ensures that whoever wins the presidency will fall far short of a Congressional majority—and thus will have trouble implementing the reforms needed to address voters' concerns.