Some 25 million Peruvians are set to turn out Sunday to vote for a new president amid the country's deadliest week of the coronavirus pandemic and a surge in new infections.
Voting is mandatory in the country of 33 million, which saw an average of 279 daily deaths over the past week and 384 fatalities in 24 hours reported Saturday -- the third daily death toll record this week.
Over 11,200 new cases were recorded Saturday.
Unlike its neighbor Chile, which was also due to hold elections Sunday but delayed them over the pandemic, Peru's government decided to press ahead.
More than 1.6 million people have tested positive for the coronavirus in Peru to date, and more than 54,000 have died.
The South American continent is battling a surge in infections fueled by new virus variants believed to be more contagious.
Six of the 18 presidential candidates have contracted the virus, including former football goalkeeper George Forsyth -- one of the leading contenders according to polls -- who was forced to cut short his final week of campaigning.
With aspirants from the left to the right of the political spectrum vying for the top post in a country where personality tends to count for more than ideology, no one enjoys more than 10 percent of polled support.
An Ipsos poll last Sunday showed 62-year-old center-right contender Yonhy Lescano with a narrow lead and only four percentage points between him and the seventh-place candidate.
Sanitizing polling stations
On Saturday, workers started sanitizing 11,402 polling stations which will open for 12 hours on Sunday -- three times more stations than usual in a bid to prevent massing.
Voters have been assigned time slots.
Yet campaigning continued until Thursday with candidates drawing hundreds of followers to boisterous rallies.
"Unfortunately, political decisions have taken precedence over (health) measures," the head of the Peru Medical College doctors' association, Augusto Tarazona, told AFP.
Interior Minister Jose Elice said about 20,000 police would be deployed to ensure voters complied with anti-infection measures.
"We are living in one of the most difficult and critical times in our history. Health, the economy, politics and even morality and ethics are in crisis," caretaker President Francisco Sagasti said in a televised address Friday, encouraging Peruvians to vote.
At a time when the country is in dire need of stability -- confronting the health crisis, economic distress and five years of political upheaval -- it appears likely the first election round will be inconclusive.
If so, Peruvians will have to wait until June 6 for a runoff round between the top two candidates.
'Most fragmented' election
Close behind Lescano, according to polls, are leftist anthropologist Veronika Mendoza, conservative economist Hernando de Soto, Forsyth, and corruption-accused Keiko Fujimori -- daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori.
Also in the running are ultra-conservative celibate Catholic Rafael Lopez Aliaga and far-left unionist Pedro Castillo.
This will be the country's "most fragmented election" ever, said Ipsos Peru chief Alfredo Torres.
Almost a third of voters are undecided.
The uncertain outcome has the markets worried, and the Peruvian sol plunged to a record low 3.8 to the US dollar last month.
Peru has been in recession since the second quarter of last year after a national lockdown shuttered businesses and crippled the all-important tourism sector.
Peru's economy contracted more than 11 percent in 2020, four million people lost their jobs and another five million dropped into poverty.
The country has also been convulsed by political upheaval driven by claims of corruption at the highest echelons.
The new president will be the fifth to hold the position in three years after three presidents fell within days of each other in November 2020 amid protests that left two dead and hundreds injured.
The first election results should be known around 11:30 pm on Sunday (0430 GMT Monday).
Peruvians will also vote for 130 members of congress.