LIMA Peruvians went to the polls on Sunday in the first round of a presidential election expected to favor Keiko Fujimori, although critical voters who have not forgiven the authoritarian rule of her father will likely ensure a June run-off.
The U.S.-educated former congresswoman set out early in her campaign to distance herself from imprisoned former President Alberto Fujimori, after she narrowly lost her first presidential bid in 2011 to President Ollanta Humala.
A center-right populist, Fujimori has vowed to preserve democracy and keep 25 years of free-market policies intact.
The 40-year-old is believed to be about 10 percentage points short of the simple majority needed for an outright win. Support for her slipped after tens of thousands protested against her on April 5, 24 years after her father shut Congress with the support of the army.
Fujimori has remained upbeat in the face of criticism as she has marketed herself as the strongest candidate for tackling crime and sluggish economic growth in a campaign that has made frequent stops in poor provincial areas.
An Ipsos poll on Saturday evening gave her 35.8 percent of valid votes, while Wall Street favorite Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, 77, had 21 percent, a statistical tie with left-wing nationalist Veronika Mendoza, 35, with 20.1 percent of votes.
Peruvians will choose the successor to Humala as their country of 30 million is on track to become the world's No. 2 copper producer after nearly two decades of uninterrupted economic growth. However, rising crime is a top concern for voters and many question why poverty persists with such vast mineral wealth.
Fujimori's father, a right-wing populist who is serving a 25-year prison term for human rights abuses and corruption during his 1990-2000 rule, is fondly remembered by some for building rural schools and hospitals and implementing neo-liberal reforms that remain in place. Keiko Fujimori famously became Peru's first lady at 19 when her parents divorced.
"I voted for Keiko because she's not to blame for what her father did," said 41-year-old Carlos Zevallos. "Crimes aren't inherited."
The elder Fujimori said his hard-line measures were necessary to defeat the Maoist-inspired Shining Path insurgency.
In a reminder of that bloody conflict, rebels presumed to be remnants of the Shining Path on Saturday ambushed soldiers sent to safeguard ballots, leaving four dead and five injured.
"These attacks should not happen anywhere in the world, least of all in our country," Fujimori said after preparing breakfast for her family before television cameras on Sunday.
Fujimori has promised to build high-altitude prisons in the Andes to isolate dangerous criminals, and said she would drive economic growth forward at the end of a decade-long mining boom by tapping a rainy day fund and issuing new debt to fund badly needed infrastructure.
Human rights groups say Fujimori's election would be an assault on hard-won democracy. They cried foul when the country's electoral board barred two leading candidates from the race while clearing Fujimori of similar charges of vote-buying. The head of the Organization of American States warned that elections would be "semi-democratic."
Humala weighed in on the controversy on Sunday, saying the disqualifications of Julio Guzman and Cesar Acuna dashed the hopes of about a fourth of Peruvians who had favored them in opinion polls.
"Unfortunately, we're worried about this process," said Humala, who cannot run because of term limits and has not publicly backed any candidate.
Opponents of Fujimori were mostly split between former World Bank economist Kuczynski, and Mendoza, a congresswoman from Cuzco who wants to scrap Peru's 1993 constitution and make Peru less dependent on mining.
"We want a change and now it's the poor's turn," said Laura Acvevedo, a 46-year-old mother of four who voted for Mendoza. "She's honest and from the provinces. ... She's not the boogeyman they make her out to be."
Kuczynski has called for supporters of minor candidates to rally around him as the only option for a "sensible center."
"He doesn't have a record of corruption like other candidates," said Kuczynski supporter Jorge Alfaro, a 28-year-old bank employee. "We don't want any more experiments."
(Additional reporting by Mitra Taj and Teresa Cespedes; Editing by Mary Milliken and Jonathan Oatis)
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