April 7, 2016 / 5:16 PM / in 2 years

As Peru's Fujimori splits voters, race is on for runner-up

LIMA (Reuters) - With a surname that sparks fury among some Peruvians and inspires adoration among others, center-right presidential contender Keiko Fujimori has managed to stay atop a turbulent field of candidates ahead of Sunday’s election.

Peru's presidential candidates Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and Keiko Fujimori attend a presidential debate in Lima, Peru, April 3, 2016. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

The daughter of former strongman Alberto Fujimori has had the unwavering support of about a third of Peruvians the past two years, thanks in part to his public investments in rural areas and crackdown on leftist insurgents in the 1990s.

But with polls showing Fujimori short of the simple majority needed to win outright, the chance at tapping a well of hostility to Fujimori in a run-off has fueled a hotly-disputed contest for runner-up.

Out of Fujimori’s nine rivals, two ideologically opposed candidates are in a virtual tie for second place, seeking the support of millions of undecided voters.

“I change my mind every half hour,” said Felix Castillo, a 39-year-old security guard, who is part of the 40 percent of the electorate not committed to any candidate, according to a poll by Ipsos published Sunday.

This year’s race was jolted by the unprecedented barring of two leading candidates, one for violating minor electoral procedures and the other for handing out cash while campaigning.

Critics said the ejections unfairly favored 40-year-old Fujimori and the head of the Organization of American States warned elections would be “semi-democratic”.

Another seven candidates voluntarily dropped out of the initial line-up of 19. Fujimori’s opponents, lacking a strong candidate to rally behind, have staged protests that led her to cancel campaign events twice.

LAWMAKER VS ECONOMIST

In a late surge, 35-year-old leftist lawmaker Veronika Mendoza has attracted undecided voters with promises of “radical change” to the free-market economic model of the past quarter century, spooking markets.

Mendoza wants to ramp up spending, hike taxes and toughen regulations on global miners that she says have too much sway in the Andean country.

“We don’t think we should keep being a mere warehouse of rocks and raw materials,” Mendoza said during a presidential debate.

Peru is set to become the world’s second-biggest copper supplier this year, behind neighboring Chile, as surging output from new projects drives the economy’s recovery from slower growth at the end of a decade-long commodities boom.

Mendoza is statistically tied with septuagenarian former World Bank economist Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, though she edged up 1.2 percentage points in a new Datum poll, slower than her previous 5-point rise.

Peru’s sol closed 0.30 percent lower and select stock index .SPBLPGPT fell 4 percent on Thursday on the poll, which showed Mendoza with 18.5 percent of valid votes compared with Kuczynski’s 18.0 percent. Fujimori maintained her ample lead with 43 percent.

Kuczynski has defended mining and pledged to slash red tape while drawing private investments in infrastructure to drive growth.

Despite repeated promises to avoid the authoritarian ways of her father - now in prison for human rights abuses and corruption - Fujimori has failed to soften opposition to her candidacy.

“All I know is I‘m going to vote against Keiko in the second round,” said Diego Cano, a 23-year-old engineer.

Tens of thousands of Fujimori’s detractors took to the streets Tuesday in the biggest political protest in Lima since rallies against Alberto Fujimori in 2000 - a sign of the polarized run-off that likely lies ahead.

Reporting by Mitra Taj and Teresa Cespedes; Editing by Nick Zieminski, Alistair Bell and Fiona Ortiz

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