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Peru's Presidential Candidates Polarizing Voters

Peru is set to hold a run-off election Sunday to choose a new president for the South American nation. The two candidates, ex-president Alan Garcia and former army officer Ollanta Humala, have traded sharp criticism in the final days of campaigning. The choice for many Peruvian voters may be, which candidate raises fewer concerns.

More than a month after the first round of presidential voting, Peruvian voters are set to choose between former President Alan Garcia, and political newcomer Ollanta Humala. Both men are seen as populist candidates of the left, but their campaigns have sought to emphasize the differences.

Mr. Garcia has rejected the economic policies of his challenger, saying Mr. Humala plans radical changes, including the take-over of key industries. He also recalls a failed military uprising led by Mr. Humala in 2000. In turn, the former military official points to Mr. Garcia's earlier term in office, which is blamed for triggering high inflation and an economic crisis in the late 1980s.

The Organization of American States has called on both sides to soften the rhetoric. But, the sentiments have already come to dominate the minds of many voters, says Ian Vasquez, director of the Global Economic Liberty project for the Cato Institute in Washington.

"Sometimes that happens when you have a political system that chooses among so many different candidates, the candidates that many people don't want end up being the leading candidates," he said. "And that's one of the comments that Peruvians are making right now, 'how did we end up with the two worst candidates in the run-off?'"

Opinion polls show that Mr. Garcia has a slight lead over Mr. Humala, who was the favorite in the first round of voting. Analysts say one reason for the decline in Mr. Humala's support has been his connection to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has publicly endorsed his candidacy. Some reports allege that Venezuela's government has even helped finance the Humala campaign.

It would not be the first time that Mr. Chavez has taken a major role in another country's elections. Last year, he was credited with helping Evo Morales win the presidency in Bolivia. Pablo Galarce, Latin America director for the International Foundation for Election Systems in Washington, says the result in Peru has been quite the opposite.

"Some of the reporting that is coming out about what President Hugo Chavez has said regarding Alan Garcia has not really been helpful," he said. "I think, surely, Mr. Alan Garcia was able to use the declarations from Hugo Chavez, and use them in his favor. Peruvians are quite, quite nationalistic."

One of the key issues in the election is economic policy. Mr. Humala has tried to appeal to Peru's indigenous and poor communities, and has criticized a recent free trade agreement signed with the United States. Mr. Garcia supports the trade deal, and has promised to continue many of the economic policies of outgoing President Alejandro Toledo. But voters say they are unsure if they can trust Mr. Garcia, when he claims to have learned from the economic mistakes of his earlier term.

Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University, says, whoever wins will inherit a relatively stable economy.

"The majority of Peruvians probably have not benefited from the market-oriented reforms, yet Peru as a whole is better off because of the market-oriented reforms. Peru is one of the healthiest economies in the Andes right now," he noted.

There has been widespread debate across the region in recent years about the kind of economic reforms used by President Toledo and others. Analysts say the outcome of Sunday's election will reveal whether most Peruvians continue to support the policies or not.