The biggest issue in the expected June 3 presidential run-off here isn't the candidates or their platforms, but voter skepticism.
For both centrist front-runner Alejandro Toledo and his leftist opponent, Alan Garcia, the greatest rival is "none of the above."
According to recent opinion polls, the number of voters who mistrust both contenders and plan to cast blank or spoiled votes is rising.
Analysts say that trend threatens to leave the winner with a weak mandate that could prolong the political and economic instability Peru has suffered since former president Alberto Fujimori made an unconstitutional third run for the presidency last year.
A poll conducted by the National University of Engineering and released Saturday shows that 34 percent of voters in Peru, where voting is mandatory, plan to cast their ballot for "neither." According to the same poll, blank votes trail Mr. Toledo by a mere 2 percentage points and beat out candidate Mr. Garcia by some 12 percentage points.
In the capital city of Lima, blank votes surpass both candidates, according to other recent polls.
"The number of blank votes is a clear sign of dissatisfaction with either candidate," says Bernardo Verjovsky, director of the polling firm Analistas y Consultores. Both Toledo and Garcia have serious "credibility problems," he says.
The campaign has taken on a circus-like atmosphere at times, with mudslinging and accusations tossed back and forth before an electorate weary from years of corruption and mismanagement at the top.
Toledo, a Stanford-trained economist who became the leader of last year's struggle against Mr. Fujimori, has since been dogged by accusations that he fathered an illegitimate child he has refused to recognize, and allegedly tested positive for cocaine use. He is often seen as erratic, lacking both the experience and stability to govern the country.
Many Peruvians don't see a better alternative in Garcia, who was previously the chief executive but left office in 1990 amid skyrocketing inflation, food rationing, surging guerrilla violence and charges of corruption and human rights abuses.
"I can't see either man running the country. I don't trust Toledo and as for Garcia, we've already seen what a mess he made of the country. There's no way I would vote for Garcia," says salesman Miguel Hidalgo. "The only option I see is to vote for neither candidate."
Toledo's campaign suffered a blow last month when Alvaro Vargas Llosa, a close Toledo adviser and son of novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, resigned from the election team.
Tapping into already existing public sentiment against both candidates, Mr. Vargas Llosa and TV interviewer Jaime Bayly launched a campaign urging Peruvians to "vote clean, vote blank."
"It is not normal that this close to the election, more than a third of the electorate rejects both candidates," says Giovanna Penaflor, director of the Lima polling firm Imasen. In addition to each candidate's foibles, the situation is partly a reflection "of the public's mistrust in politics as a result of the revelations of corruption during the previous [Fujimori] government."
Still, analysts discount the possibility that the number of blank or spoiled ballots could reach the two-thirds level, which would annul the election.
Many observers say the number of protest votes could drop by as much as 10 percentage points in the two weeks remaining before the election.
In a debate between the candidates Saturday night, democracy, the economy, and corruption were the central themes.
Toledo outlined his plans to reactivate the stalled economy through privatizations, a reduction in taxes, and a boost in exports. Garcia proposed reducing utility rates and the creation of an agrarian bank that would provide credit to farmers.
Immediately after the televised debate, the first such match in 11 years, an instant TV network poll showed that most viewers thought Toledo outdid Garcia.
"The debate will help reduce the number of the blank votes, but we probably won't see a significant drop until right before the election," says Penaflor. "The last week especially will be crucial."
But even with a drop as low 20 percent, says Mr. Verjovsky, the number of blank votes means that whoever wins the election will have his work cut out for him. "The next president will have to work hard to win the confidence of the electorate and avoid a social crisis," he says.
Authoritarian ex-president Fujimori, who ruled for a decade, left Peru in November after a corruption scandal. Fujimori fled to Japan, where he appears safe from extradition.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor