LIMA - The election for a new president and Congress comes against the backdrop of a fierce second wave of the coronavirus pandemic and widespread public apathy that has meant none of the 18 candidates to lead the country has polled more than 13%.
Polls are scheduled to close at 7 p.m. (0000 GMT), when Ipsos is expected to publish an exit poll, followed about two hours later by fast counts. The first official results are expected by 11:30 p.m. (0430 GMT Monday).
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 leftist professor Pedro Castillo, have both edged to the front of the pack following late gains in support, according to the latest opinion 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.
Voting early in the capital, Lima, Peru's interim president, Francisco Sagasti, who has led the Andean nation since a political crisis sparked by the impeachment for alleged corruption of a predecessor last November, insisted voting was safe.
"All possible measures have been taken to avoid contagions. There should be no fear of complying with your civic duty," said Sagasti, who is not a candidate.
The country's 25.2 million eligible voters were 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.
Fujimori told an election breakfast that voters should turn out to guarantee a new Peru.
"I know voter apathy is not just because of the pandemic but also because of the abandonment of recent decades, of an inefficient and incapable state that has not been able to meet the expectations of the Peruvian people," she said.
"I call on you to vote once more, with joy, enthusiasm and conviction. Absenteeism is not an option, nor is a blank vote."
In the Cajamarca region of northern Peru, Castillo arrived to vote in his trademark white sombrero and on a horse that took fright at the crowds and attempted to bolt.
Among voters Castillo had impressed was Juana Rivera, 33, a street hawker voting in the San Borja district of Lima.
"I will vote for Castillo because he has said he will increase the salary of teachers and police, and because everyone else is corrupt," she said.
The tight race has led to jitters among market watchers of the world's second-largest copper producer.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. (1200 GMT), and long lines had formed by midmorning outside polling stations, which were unable to open because voting supervisors - picked at random from among the populace - failed to show up.
Peru's National Elections Office (ONPE) said 75% of voting booths were operational by 9 a.m. After an appeal for more volunteers, all but a handful were up and running by midafternoon.
Pedro Barragan, a member of Peru's large expatriate population casting votes abroad, told TV in Buenos Aires he hoped the new president delivered on campaign promises.
"Not like the previous candidates who made promises but ultimately left without doing anything for the country," he said.
By Marco Aquino
(Reporting by Marco Aquino; Writing by Aislinn Laing and Adam Jourdan; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)