Peru presidential electionPeruvians head to the polls on Sunday, April 10 in what are shaping up to be the most volatile and unpredictable presidential and congressional elections in recent memory. With no candidate likely to get the 50 percent of the vote needed to win in the first round, a second round of voting for President on June 5 is virtually assured. The most recent polls indicate that populist candidate Ollanta Humala will be the top-vote getter on Sunday and will easily make it through the first round — as he did in 2006, only to be routed by Alan Garcia. But it remains unclear who among his contenders will compete with him in the second round.

Humala’s recent rise in the polls caught observers by surprise. Until a few weeks ago, he was polling in the low teens, and former President Alejandro Toledo was considered a shoo-in to win the first round. But by mid-March, Toledo started to slip in the polls. Humala was not the only candidate to reap the benefits: Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a businessman who served as Toledo’s Prime Minister and whose poll numbers were in the single digits, also saw his numbers rise.

Today, Toledo and Kuczynski are in a virtual dead-heat for the second-place spot with Keiko Fujimori. Keiko, daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori, now serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations committed during his 10-year authoritarian regime, maintains a solid block of about 18 percent of the electorate, apparently more out of loyalty to her father than support for her lackluster campaign. Luis Castañeda Lossio, two-time mayor of Lima, has seen his poll numbers drop substantively, from a high of 25 percent to under 14 percent now, so many see him as no longer a prime contender for that coveted second place.

But uncertainty abounds. Polls put Humala as the front-runner with a solid lead over the remaining candidates, but they almost uniformly show him losing in a second round to any of the other candidates. Another element of surprise is the 30 percent of voters who say they are still undecided about who they will cast their ballot for on Sunday. And, of those who do express a preference, about 25 percent say that they may switch their vote.

A variety of factors help explain such indecisiveness. Political parties have all but disappeared, along with strong political allegiances. While each of the top candidates has a core block of support, none has generated a great deal of enthusiasm among the electorate more broadly. Interestingly, 50 percent or more say that they “would never” vote for each of the top candidates, meaning that those who do make it to the second round will have a tough sell and a significant chunk of blank or spoiled ballots in the final vote could undermine the legitimacy of the ultimate victor.

Perhaps most significantly, apart from Humala, the candidates are more or less offering the same thing: continuity with the present economic model, improved education, improved security, and the like. As a result, to a degree surprising even by Peruvian standards, the electoral debate has focused less on programmatic differences and more on personal issues. The media has focused more on how many bottles of whiskey were purchased by the Presidential Palace when Toledo was president than how to ensure that Peru’s impressive economic growth lead to real and sustainable improvements for the urban and rural poor.

Indeed, Humala has capitalized on the frustration that many Peruvians feel with regards to rampant corruption and the sense that only a select group is benefiting from steady economic growth. His steady rise in the polls should not be surprising given that recent polls show that only 22 percent of the population is happy with the present economic model, while 33 percent want radical change and 36 percent want some change. Humala is offering simple and direct programs that have proven to be very popular in neighboring countries, such as a means-tested pension plan for those over 65, improved access to health care for the poor, and a program to provide childcare for children under the age of three in the poorest districts in the country.

With Humala’s rise in the polls, the fear mongering is in full swing, with headlines proclaiming that the end of capitalism is near and the Peruvian is blogosphere rife with pseudo-sarcastic comments urging Peruvians to get their passports ready given the very real possibility that the final round would pit Humala versus Keiko Fujimori. Reacting to this possibility, Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa said “it would be like having to choose between AIDS and cancer.” Humala does raise concern among many progressives. There are well-founded allegations of responsibility for human rights violations that took place when he was a military commander in a jungle region during Peru’s brutal civil conflict, though the initial case brought by human rights groups was dismissed after the witnesses reversed their testimony. Not long after the 2006 elections, his congressional majority in congress began to splinter, leading some analysts to question his leadership skills. Finally, it is important to point out that the Peruvian left is split over his candidacy, with some key politicians, activists and social movements supporting him, but many others who are not and who likely feel disenfranchised for lack of an alternative left-wing candidate.

Whatever happens in the first round of voting on April 10, it is likely to be a deeply polarizing road to the second-round elections. Moreover, all indications are that the Peruvian Congress will be extremely fractured, with no political group having a decisive majority. The next president of Peru, whoever that proves to be, will face immediate challenges to ensure effective governability – and to create a government that is responsive to the needs of all Peruvians.

Coletta A. Youngers is the Latin America Regional Associate with the International Drug Policy Consortium and a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Jo-Marie Burt is an Associate Professor at George Mason University and also a WOLA Senior Fellow.