Peruvians began voting for President on Sunday, with leftist ex-soldier Ollanta Humala a clear favourite amid widespread uncertainty over his probable rival for a second round in June.

Almost 20 million people are eligible to vote for a successor to centre-right President Alain Garcia, who cannot immediately stand again.

Right-wing populist Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the jailed former President, Alberto Fujimori, was slightly ahead of liberal ex-Prime Minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, known as “PPK,” according to the latest estimations on Saturday.

Alejandro Toledo, former centrist President from 2001 to 2006, appeared slightly further behind, after dropping in popularity during the campaign.

The South American nation, which includes parts of the Amazon rainforest, the towering Andes and a Pacific coastline, has seen record growth in the past decade, backed by exports from its mineral-rich land and ocean rich in marine life. But more than a third of Peruvians still live in poverty and many blame politicians for failing to help them catch up.

Mr. Ollanta Humala has promised a “great transformation and great redistribution of riches”.

The 48-year-old former soldier has brushed up his image in his second bid to take power after his narrow second round defeat in 2006.

He has now publicly turned away from his former leftist mentor Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez toward the more moderate model of Brazil.

Polls suggest he could win almost 30 per cent of the first-round vote, while his rise sent shudders through the markets.

But Mr. Humala was unlikely to have a majority in the Congress, which was expected to remain fractured after a simultaneous vote on Sunday, even if he managed to win a June 5 runoff.

Ms. Fujimori benefits from die-hard supporters of her father — the iron-fisted President of the 1990s now jailed for human rights abuses during a clampdown on leftist guerrillas, but also remembered for reining in hyperinflation.

Her experience includes her public role as Peru's “first lady” aged 19 following her parents' divorce, and she frequently referred to her father in the campaign.

“We defeated terrorism and inflation,” said Ms. Keiko, now 35, recently. The latest opinion polls gave her between 21 per cent and 23 per cent of the vote.

Mr. Toledo — a 65-year-old who was born into Andean poverty but earned a U.S. doctorate in economics — seeks to capitalise on growth achieved during his 2001-2006 presidency, but has suffered from a poor campaign.

Meanwhile, 72-year-old former Wall Street banker Mr. Kuczynski rose recently with support from Lima's elite.

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