LIMA, Peru (AP) — Smears, insults and dirty tricks are nothing new in Peruvian politics, but the mudslinging is especially virulent ahead of Sunday's closely contested presidential runoff.
Voters face a choice between what many consider fringe candidates: the daughter of imprisoned former President Alberto Fujimori, or former military officer Ollanta Humala, who was formerly close to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and who advocates giving the poor a greater share of Peru's wealth.
Both are populists, yet at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Three candidates split the centrist vote in the first round of the election on April 10, getting a total of 45 percent, well ahead of what Keiko Fujimori or Humala received.
The only option, for many, is choosing the candidate they believe will do less damage. Opinion polls are showing a dead heat.
"It's a triage situation. You have an emergency and you choose the best alternative," said investigative journalist Gustavo Gorriti. "In medicine, you choose the person who has the best chance to survive. Here ... it's the person who offers the best alternative for democracy's survival."
Gorriti is betting on Humala, though he skewered the candidate in 2006, when Humala narrowly lost the presidency to Alan Garcia. Humala now disavows links to Chavez, and swears he's a democrat.
He also accuses Garcia of directly supporting his opponent. The president has allowed the opposing campaign to be run from Alberto Fujimori's jail, Humala alleged at a news conference Friday. He also suggested state intelligence agents are eavesdropping on his campaign.
Peru's largely business-friendly news media, with just a few exceptions, has abandoned any semblance of impartiality in its support for Fujimori.
The most powerful media group, whose flagship is the El Comercio newspaper, has fired at least two journalists, producers at Canal N news channel, allegedly for refusing to bias coverage against Humala. The channel denies the accusation.
Fujimori has been endorsed by two of the three centrist candidates eliminated in the first round: former economy minister and investment banker Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and ex-Lima Mayor Luis Castaneda. The third, former President Alejandro Toledo, is backing Humala.
Prominent writers and intellectuals tend to join the poor in supporting the cashiered former army lieutenant colonel, antagonizing bankers and mining executives who are terrified he would nationalize industries and expropriate land from the wealthy in the style of Venezuela's Chavez.
Many human rights activists are reluctantly backing Humala, who has been accused of witness tampering to escape prosecution for right abuses as commander of a counterinsurgency unit in 1992.
They can't bring themselves to back Keiko Fujimori, whose father is serving a 25-year prison term for authorizing death squad killings, corruption and kidnappings during his 1990-2000 rule. Rights groups organized a march against Fujimori last week.
Alberto Fujimori, who lives in relative comfort at a police station on Lima's outskirts, is esteemed for defeating both hyperinflation and the Shining Path rebels. He is also abhorred for presiding over a kleptocracy that persecuted enemies and flouted human rights.
The anti-Fujimori newspaper La Republica has been reminding Peruvians almost daily this week of the 300,000 poor highlands women who were forcibly sterilized on orders from Fujimori's government.
The newspaper has been demanding an apology from Keiko Fujimori, who became first lady in 1994 following an ugly split between her parents. Her mother, who had publicly denounced government corruption, later accused her father of having her tortured.
Keiko Fujimori has expressed regret for abuses committed during her father's administration, but still calls her father Peru's best president ever.
Gorriti, a kidnapping victim of the Fujimori government, is conditionally backing Humala, though he wrote ahead of the 2006 election that Humala would "use all the weapons of democracy to assassinate it."
Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru's best known intellectual and the winner of last year's Nobel Prize in Literature, is feuding openly with El Comercio over his support of Humala.
Vargas Llosa called it "a propaganda machine" for Keiko Fujimori and "a caricature" of a real newspaper this week and announced he would no longer publish his column there. El Comercio's publisher called his accusations "ill-intentioned untruths."
Some Peruvians are so disgusted by both candidates they've decided to mark "neither" on their ballot.
"I'm voting 'neither' because whichever becomes president needs to know there is a part of Peru that doesn't support them," said Helenia Arevalo, a 54-year-old Lima real estate agent.
Fernando de Szyszlo, Peru's best-known painter, is also disheartened.
"It really pains me not to vote, but I'm not voting," he told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Szyszlo had just spoken by phone with Vargas Llosa, a friend with whom he has collaborated on a planned museum dedicated to the memory of the estimated 70,000 people who died in the country's 1980-2000 dirty war.
"'I'd like to believe in Humala's word, but I don't,' I told him. 'I can tell a lot by his face. He's not up to it.'"
Szyszlo criticized another friend, Kuczynski, who he said got "the idea he could be president and ruined everything."
Kuczynski surged late in the race, but finished third.
He shared the stage with Keiko Fujimori, half his age at 36, at her final campaign rally Thursday night.
One of the producers fired by Canal N, Patricia Montero, was a founder of the news channel in the 1990s, when other TV channels were allied with Alberto Fujimori. Canal N helped expose the corruption scandal that brought Fujimori down.
Montero is upset because, in traditional and social media alike, "you can't express your opinion now without the attacks raining on you."
"I'm pained because I feel like as a society, after everything we've lived, we haven't advanced much," Montero said.
She's also surprised by the racism the campaign has stirred up in a country whose indigenous people have since Spanish colonial times been largely suppressed by a white European-descended elite.
After Humala won the first round with 32 percent, slurs appeared in online social networks accusing Andean natives in the highlands, where the nation's economic boom has hardly been felt, of being ignorant and unworthy of suffrage for backing Humala.
Gorriti blames Peru's predicament on a conservative elite still imbued with a colonialist mentality that doesn't understand why it might be a good idea to better distribute the wealth from a mining boom after a decade of growth averaging 7 percent annually.
"That's why Peru has never had what could be deemed a ruling class that considers, above all, the national interest, the interests of the republic."
Associated Press writer Martin Villena contributed to this report.
Frank Bajak can be reached at http://twitter.com/fbajak.