|Peru saw more than 200 protests in April alone, mostly focusing on economic and environmental concerns [REUTERS]
After the most polarised election race in decades, Peruvians go to the polls on Sunday to choose not only a new president but also to decide whether to stick with the current neoliberal economic policies or to opt for reforms to reduce inequality and marginalisation.
According to analysts of different stripes, it became clear on May 29, that what voters will decide on is the country's development model, during the only debate between the two rivals in Sunday's runoff: leftwing nationalist Ollanta Humala and rightwing lawmaker Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the former president who ushered in the current model, Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000).
Tension is at an uprecedented level in Peru ahead of the vote, while opinion polls show the two candidates neck and neck in the closest race since the 1960s.
The latest survey by the Ipsos Apoyo polling firm shows Fujimori in the lead, with 50.5 per cent support, but just one point ahead of Humala, who has 49.5 per cent. According to another leading pollster, Imasen, Humala is the front-runner, with 43.8 per cent support, but barely ahead of Fujimori, with 42.5 per cent.
The director of the University of the Pacific Research Centre, Eduardo Morón, says voters are fully aware of the significance of these elections, but are unsure of what a victory by either candidate would mean in practical terms – which explains that around 15 per cent of poll respondents are still undecided.
Morón said: "People aren't clear about the consequences of following one alternative or the other," in a contest in which the polls show that the supporters of one of the candidates are often rabidly opposed to the rival candidate.
"Some believe that greater state intervention would bring economic improvements and reduce extreme poverty in the countryside, but these are goals that cannot be achieved overnight, regardless of the political will or resources made available," the researcher said.
Even those that are critical of Humala, such as the private Peruvian Institute of Economics (IPE), recognise the need for in-depth reforms of the country's economic and social model.
"In the campaign, Fujimori has been portrayed as the candidate of continuity and Humala as the candidate of change, but it's not clear to voters what that really implies," said Pablo Secada at the IPE.
"Of course major changes in economic and public policies are necessary, in order to build a more inclusive model," he added.
As an example of the changes needed, he said the state-run "Banco de la Nación should set up branches in those regions which have not been reached by any other bank, instead of granting loans indiscriminately to public employees".
The votes of the poor will play a crucial role on Sunday. In the first round of voting, on April 10, Humala won in the regions with the highest poverty rates, such as the rural highland regions of Apurimac, Huancavelica and Ayacucho.
According to analysts the reason for this is that, while poverty has been reduced sharply in the past five years, the improvements were felt much more in urban than in rural areas, which accentuated the country's deep social inequalities.
The National Institute of Statistics and Informatics reported that, from 2004 to 2009, poverty fell 43.1 per cent in urban areas but only 13.6 per cent in rural areas. The official poverty rate in this South American country of 30 million people currently stands at 31.4 per cent.
The difference explains why the polls show that the urban poor will not vote the same as the rural poor, although it is clear that in both segments there is a large proportion of people who are still undecided, partly due to the lack of clarity in the candidates' proposals.
"There is still a great deal we don't know about what is happening in the categories 'D' and 'E', where there are big pockets of poverty," said political scientist Eduardo Dargent, author of the study Precarious Democrats.
Peru's socioeconomic categories are A through E, with E being the poorest.
The analyst pointed out that in 2006, these segments of the population mainly voted for Humala who, like this time, won the first round of elections. However, he was defeated in the runoff by conservative President Alán García.
"But this time, both Humala and Fujimori made it to the second round thanks to support from the D and E categories," so "it would appear that socioeconomic level will not be the defining factor" on this occasion, Dargent said.
"Some analysts say the different positions among voters might have more to do with different ways of relating to the state: whether they are interested in patronage-style benefits, offered by Keiko, or more systematic social changes offered by Humala," the political scientist said.
But he added that there are many open questions: "The urban poor back Keiko and the rural poor back Ollanta? What proposals are attractive to the people who are still undecided, in those segments of society?"
Fujimori's campaign, Fuerza 2011, has handed out t-shirts, cooking utensils and even food, in an open show of patronage - since, unlike in other countries, these practices are not banned by the election laws in Peru.
"The campaign presents were welcomed, especially by mothers in categories D and E," said Socorro Arce, Fuerza 2011 spokeswoman in the southern highlands region of Ayacucho.
"We simply want to reach the disadvantaged so they will remember the considerations that Alberto Fujimori had towards the neediest segments of society," Arce said, explaining the distribution of gifts bearing the candidate's logo and image.
Keiko Fujimori repeatedly appeals to the memory of her father's regime, and says her government would build on, and improve, his legacy. Alberto Fujimori is in prison for 25 years for human rights crimes and corruption.
Dargent said that, during the campaign for the second round vote, Humala has made an effort to be self-critical, and has reached out to voters in the centre – efforts that his rival has not made.
But he added: "I don't know if this will be important in terms of winning votes. Apparently Fujimori's voters, especially the groups supporting her campaign, are not demanding clarifications of this kind.
"For them, the most important thing is that Humala is not elected," because they don't want changes in the economy, a concern that outweighs issues like corruption or inequality, he said.
Morón, a member of the Economic and Social Research Consortium (CIES) which promoted the debate between the two candidates, said welfare-oriented policies will not resolve pressing problems such as the process of decentralisation.
"The candidates haven't even mentioned how they will move towards smooth coordination between the three levels of government: central, regional and local," the analyst said.
"The next government will have to make a huge effort to find a common direction for all three levels, because it could find itself overwhelmed by social conflicts. Whichever candidate wins will have half of the country against him or her," Morón said.
In the last week of May, the Aymara indigenous population in the highlands region of Puno held a series of demonstrations against mining activity in the area, protesting the damages caused by the industry to agriculture and livestock. A temporary halt to the protests, which are backed by regional and local authorities, was declared - to last until after the elections.
According to the latest report by the ombudsperson's office, there were 233 protest demonstrations in the country in the month of April alone, most of which were held in the poorest regions, and half of which involved socio-environmental complaints and demands.
A version of this article first appeared on Inter Press Service news agency.