Peruvians head to polls with masks, pens and little excitement

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LIMA, April 11 (Reuters) – Peruvians were preparing to head to the polls on Sunday in a presidential election marked by uncertainty due to widespread public apathy following decades of graft and mismanagement and a possible low turnout because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Polls were scheduled to open at 7 a.m. local time (1200 GMT), with twice as many sites available to voters than in previous elections as authorities try to avoid fueling a second coronavirus wave that has gripped the Andean nation.

None of the 18 presidential candidates have polled more than 12% and a “no vote” is still the most popular choice for disgruntled respondents ahead of the first round of voting.

Two contenders from opposite poles of the political spectrum could face off in the second round in June. Hernando de Soto, a liberal economist, and radical leftist professor Pedro Castillo, have both edged to the front of the pack following late upticks in support, according to the latest poll.

Keiko Fujimori, the conservative, U.S.-educated daughter of jailed former president Alberto Fujimori, is close behind, followed by populist candidate Yonhy Lescano, ultraconservative Rafael López Aliaga and leftist candidate Veronika Mendoza.

The gap between those candidates, however, is within the margin of error, according to pollster Ipsos Peru. The tight race has led to jitters among market watchers of the world’s second-largest copper producer.

Peru’s 25.2 million eligible voters have been told to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and bring their own pens to mark ballots. Peru reported 384 COVID-19 deaths on Saturday, a record daily high for the country.

Although voting is mandatory in Peru, there are concerns that many residents will disregard the threat of a $25 fine and stay at home.

Polls are scheduled to close at 7 p.m. (2400 GMT). An exit poll from Ipsos Peru and the first official results are expected by 11:30 p.m.

(Reporting by Marco Aquino; Writing by Adam Jourdan Editing by Paul Simao)