Peruvians head to the polls Sunday for presidential and legislative elections. The latest public opinion surveys project a virtual tie between three presidential aspirants with vastly different visions of where to take the country. Many Peruvians say they are voting for change, but some doubt that positive change will occur, regardless of who is elected.
On the eve of the elections, people of all ages lounged on benches in the colonial-style plaza in front of Lima's presidential palace. On what is called a "day of reflection," many businesses closed early. After months of campaigning, all 20-plus presidential candidates delivered their final speeches days ago, and Peruvian law places a moratorium on the domestic reporting of poll numbers two days prior to elections.
Strolling through the plaza with her mother, Blanca Mejia says she will go to the polls with optimism.
She says, "One has to vote with joy and enthusiasm for Peru's future, that it may grow and improve, and that good things happen."
Electrician Eduardo Nunez sees things differently, and says he will vote mainly because those who do not are fined under Peruvian law.
He says, "I will vote primarily because I am obligated to do so. Sincerely, I don't agree with any of the candidates. There is too much talk. They make promises and more promises, but they never fulfill any of them."
Final opinion polls showed three presidential hopefuls in a statistical tie: populist Ollanta Humala, a former soldier who has pledged to rescind perks given to foreign corporations that invest in the country, center-right lawyer Lourdes Flores, who has promised to aid small businesses, and former President Alan Garcia, who has pledged not to repeat the mistakes of his previous administration.
Peru has enjoyed four consecutive years of strong economic growth under outgoing President Alejandro Toledo, but poverty rates remain stubbornly high. Surveys show most Peruvians feel they have benefited little from their country's overall economic improvement.
Public school teacher Osvaldo Gutierrez says it does not matter who becomes president because nothing will change.
He says, "Why do our politicians seek power? To steal. To fill their pockets without caring about the people. That is why Peru has 13 to 14 million people living in extreme poverty."
Voting is taking place on Palm Sunday, the week before Easter in this heavily Catholic country of more than 16 million eligible voters. To give people maximum time to show up at the polls, churches have been prohibited from opening their doors, leading to complaints from clergy and the faithful alike.
Bank teller Maria Aleman says it would be easy to lose hope, given what she regards as the poor track record of previous leaders to address Peru's needs. But she says she refuses to surrender to pessimism.
She says, "I think we have to have hope. At least a little."
No candidate is projected to come close to securing the 50 percent of the vote needed to win the presidency outright, making it likely that the top two vote-getters will compete in a run-off contest at the end of the month.