In Peru, two weak choices

Peru's political system has been ailing for decades. Corruption, violence and deep economic inequalities have left it weakened. Now, the first round of voting in the presidential race, which took place Sunday, threatens to leave the country in critical condition.

From a field of five candidates, two emerged as front-runners likely to move on to a runoff election June 5. Both appear wanting in experience, and concerns about their commitment to democracy prompted Peruvian writer and Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa to say the decision will be like "choosing between AIDS and terminal cancer."

The top vote-getter, Ollanta Humala, is a former military officer turned fiery populist who promises to redistribute the country's wealth and rewrite the constitution, raising concerns that he might try to extend his term in office. Once a vocal admirer of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, he has tried in recent years to tone down the anti-capitalistic rhetoric that had prompted comparisons to Bolivia and Ecuador's leaders and to position himself nearer the center.

His closest rival is expected to be Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of a jailed president convicted of human rights abuses and rampant corruption. A congresswoman, she has relied on Alberto Fujimori's former cohorts to steer her campaign and has promised to pardon him if elected. Like Humala, she has pledged to help the poor but has offered few other details of her program beyond declaring her support for the death penalty in cases of the rape of minors.

Peru can't afford either candidate. Too much is at stake.

The Andean country is only starting to clean up after the pinata of corruption that was the Fujimori era. The faceless military courts that imprisoned untold numbers of innocent Peruvians as terrorists have been dismantled, but the judicial system remains weak. The brutal Maoist guerrilla group Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, has largely been defeated, but new threats have surfaced. Last year, Peru produced more coca leaves than Colombia, according to a United Nations report, prompting fears of violence and further corruption. (Although coca is grown legally in some areas of Peru, the vast majority of coca fields are illegal.) And even though Peru's economy grew by about 9% last year, the benefits of the boom have yet to reach the poor, the majority of whom live outside Lima, where social and public services are scarce.

With less than two months to go before the runoff, Peruvians have few choices. Luckily, neither candidate has a strong majority and both still need to woo voters, who can withhold support and demand that both Humala and Fujimori pledge to respect the nascent democratic institutions and to maintain the current presidential term limits.

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