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Peru Prepares for National Elections Sunday

Peruvian presidential candidates have delivered their final speeches in Lima ahead of Sunday's national elections. In the second of a two-part series, VOA's Michael Bowman reports, the contenders include a center-right candidate who hopes to become Peru's first female leader.

Thousands of Peruvians packed a Lima plaza to give a warm welcome to Lourdes Flores, an attorney who professes free market principles and is considered friendly to the United States.

Addressing supporters, Flores says she will represent all Peruvians. Opponents have branded her a lackey of Peru's old oligarchy and a slave to large corporations.

In her last major address of the campaign, Flores stressed her commitment to fighting poverty and improving the lives of all Peruvians. When she spoke of expanding business opportunities, she spoke not of big corporations but of small, family-run enterprises.

"I want to address all micro-business owners," she said. "You are the critical element in creating wealth and jobs in our country. And I want to make clear that I aspire to govern so that the economy, in the hands of small businesses, flourishes and provides work and opportunity for Peru's families."

Lima slum-dweller Maribel Pena says she is not impressed.

"I think Flores will be on the side of the very rich people, the millionaires," she said.

Even Flores' most ardent supporters acknowledge she is less charismatic than many of the other 20-plus presidential contenders. Backers say she will lead a competent, if less than flashy, government.

Engineering student Carlos Gonzalez says he is not enthusiastic about Flores, but she will get his vote by default.

"My vote will have to go to Lourdes Flores, which is not ideal," he said. "But what can I do? Here in Peru one ends up voting for someone because no one better has emerged."

Opinion polls show a tight three-way contest between Flores, populist firebrand Ollanta Humala, and former President Alan Garcia. Humala recently predicted Flores, if elected, would be overthrown within a year. The Flores campaign fired back that Humala, an ex-military officer who once led a failed rebellion, aims to sow conflict if he is defeated at the ballot box.

A top adviser to Humala, Gonzalo Garcia Nunez, says that given the Peruvian people's desire for change, it is entirely reasonable to say that if elected, she would not be able to stay in office for a full term.

"Lourdes and others advocate maintaining the status quo, and that is risky," he said. "There are other examples in Latin America where similar governments proved to be fragile."

But Lourdes Flores says it is demagogic populism that has repeatedly failed in Latin America. In a thinly veiled jab at Humala, she said Peruvians will no longer be seduced by candidates who offer nothing but heavy rhetoric and empty promises.

Polling data show Flores' support is strongest in urban areas, especially among female voters. Lima resident Ana Mora says the time has come for a woman to lead.

"Lourdes has very good ideas," she said. "Her message is steady, unlike those of other candidates. And, she is a woman - like me."

For her part, Flores says she will not let her female compatriots down.

"I want to tell the women of Peru: I am aware of the immense responsibility that is on my shoulders," she said. "But I have faith that Peru will, for the first time, give us a chance to lead. I swear to you from my soul, this is my greatest promise: I will not betray you. I will preserve the good name of the women of Peru."

But is Peru ready for a woman president? Public opinion pollster Alfredo Torres says only time will tell.

"Flores has had much success with the female part of the electorate," he said. "But it is true that some men with "macho" [sexist] attitudes in the interior of the country could serve as a counter-balance."