THE most important feature of Peru's municipal elections on Sunday will not be the results - even though they may provide a pointer to presidential elections scheduled in April. Rather, the key will be how many of the electorate of almost 10 million are able to vote.
By law, voting in Peru is compulsory. But the elections have been the target of a violent campaign by the Maoist guerrillas of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), who have pledged to impede them wherever they can.
For Peru's democracy, battered by economic collapse as well as guerrilla violence, a high turnout Sunday is vital to reassure both the voters and the armed forces that next April's presidential elections can still viably be held. Otherwise, a Peruvian intelligence official says, there is the danger that any new government would have ``legality but not legitimacy.''
President Alan Garc'ia P'erez's government has responded by putting the Army in charge of public order in Lima, and by declaring a state of emergency in the four provinces surrounding the capital. Half the country is now subject to emergency regulations and military control, covering a broad swath of central Peru from the Pacific coast to the Brazilian border.
For the Sendero Luminoso guerrillas - whose avowed aim is to provoke a military coup ``to clear the field,'' in Mao's phrase, of civilian political forces - attempting to block the elections is part of a strategy to create ``power vacuums.''
To this end, they have killed mayors (more than 60 since 1985, and 32 this year) and mayoral candidates to frighten others into resigning.
Elections will not take place in many rural districts in the central Andes because there are no candidates and, in some places, no electoral authority.
While there are no precise figures on how many are affected, Carlos Castaneda Lafontaine - who as president of the National Elections Board is in charge of ensuring that the elections take place - suggests the percentage of the country's 2,000 districts is ``not significant.''
In the Andean city of Ayacucho, where Sendero Luminoso began its insurgency in 1980, only one candidate is still running. Two others resigned after the city's mayor was killed in September.
Even where there are candidates, the Sendero guerrillas are trying to stop people from getting to polling stations. The guerrillas have decreed a three-day ``armed strike'' in three central departments, including the city of Huancayo, the largest in the central Andes, for the coming weekend. The government has responded by declaring a curfew in the area.
But the key test will be in the capital, Lima, where a third of the electorate lives. In San Juan de Lurigancho and El Agustino, two of the many sprawling shantytown districts that ring the city, there are rumors that Sendero Luminoso has announced a three day ``armed strike'' as in Huancayo, and ordered voters to stay at home.
After receiving security guarantees from the authorities, leaders of private bus owners, who provide most of Lima's public transport, have promised that their buses will work normally on Sunday. But it is not clear whether this will be enough to persuade the bus owners to take their vehicles on to the streets in the face of Sendero sabotage threats.
Just how effective Sendero Luminoso's terror tactics are was shown on Nov. 3, when a one day ``armed strike'' shut down much of the capital city. The bus owners didn't work and many shops and businesses remained closed.
This was only partly overshadowed by a peace march held the same day in defiance of the ``strike.'' More than 15,000 people from all of Peru's legal political parties and trade union confederations, as well as business leaders and Roman Catholic bishops, attended a rally in one of Lima's central square.
It was an unprecedented demonstration of unity across the political spectrum and underlined how widespread the rejection of Sendero Luminoso is.
The result of the elections, in which voters in some areas will also choose newly created regional governments, are likely to underline public disillusionment with the main political parties.
Ricardo Belmont - a television proprietor running as an independent - appears certain to be elected mayor of Lima, ahead of the candidate of the five-party right-of-center Democratic Front, according to opinion polls.
The polls also show that in Arequipa, Peru's second city, the outgoing mayor from a small regional populist party is likely to be reelected.
The campaign of Mr. Belmont, who has not presented a municipal government plan but relied on his charisma and communications skills, is part of a growing Latin American trend in which media personalities have achieved electoral success. The losers have been long-standing political parties whose campaign promises have not been matched by achievements, particularly in economic management.
``The parties' politicking seems to people like a trick,'' says Fernando Tuesta, a Lima-based political analyst and electoral historian, of the parties' inability to fulfill their election promises.
Though Sunday's results may deal a psychological blow to Mario Vargas Llosa, the novelist candidate of the Democratic Front who heads the opinion polls for the presidential elections, they may not be decisive for the presidential election. Belmont said he will vote for Mr. Vargas Llosa in April.