Right-wing populist Keiko Fujimori and radical leftist Pedro Castillo were locked in a "statistical draw" in an exit poll as voting closed in Peru's presidential election on Sunday.
Fujimori, the daughter of disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori, had 50.3 percent of the vote according to reputable pollsters Ipsos, with Castillo on 49.7 percent just after polls closed at 7pm local time (0000 GMT).
Ipsos said the results were so close that it couldn't separate them.
Castillo had topped the first round of voting in April, when the pair both caused a surprise by reaching the second round, and he was also narrowly ahead in the latest opinion polls before Sunday's vote.
The new leader will need to tackle a country in crisis, suffering from recession and with the worst coronavirus fatality rate in the world after recording over 184,000 deaths among its 33 million population.
Peruvians will also look to the winner to end years of political turbulence after four presidents in the last three years, and with seven of the last 10 of the country's leaders either having been convicted of or investigated for corruption.
First official results are expected late Sunday night.
At the height of the political storm in November last year, Peru had three different presidents in just five days.
Two million Peruvians have lost their jobs during the pandemic and nearly a third of the country now live in poverty, according to official figures.
For voters, this was a choice between polar opposites.
Fujimori represents the neoliberal economic model of tax cuts and boosting private activity to generate jobs.
Speaking to journalists and supporters on Sunday morning, she promised to "respect the popular will," no matter the outcome of the voting.
She also praised the "grandfathers and grandmothers" who went out to vote despite the pandemic. "They thought about their children and grandchildren," she added.
Trade unionist schoolteacher Castillo has pledged to nationalise vital industries, raise taxes, eliminate tax exemptions and increase state regulation.
He voted in Tacabamba in the Cajamarca region following a breakfast with his family.
"I've taken a decision, I'm not going to Lima because of my parents' health," said Castillo, who also vowed to respect the results.
Fujimori's bastion is the capital Lima, while Castillo's bulwark is the rural deep interior.
"We're fed up with always being governed by the same people, we want Peru to change," Martha Huamán, a 27-year-old fruit seller in the Cajamarca region where Castillo lives, told AFP.
"For us it's a dream, it's an awakening, we're really happy to be with" Castillo, said evangelical priest Víctor Cieza Rivera, whose church in Tacabamba, a village in Cajamarca, is attended by the presidential candidate's wife Lilia Paredes.
Tacabamba and other villages in Cajamarca were full of posters for Castillo, who topped the first round of voting.
'I don't want to vote'
Favoured by the business sector and middle classes, Fujimori tried to portray Castillo as a communist threat, warning that Peru would become a new Venezuela or North Korea should he win.
Castillo pointed to the Fujimori family's history of corruption scandals. Keiko Fujimori is under investigation over campaign funding in her 2011 and 2016 presidential bids and has already spent 16 months in pre-trial detention.
Her father is serving a 25-year sentence for crimes against humanity and corruption.
For many in Peru this election was about the "lesser of evils."
"I don't even want to vote, neither of them deserve it, but Castillo panics me so I'm going to vote for Fujimori," said trucker Johnny Samaniego, 51, who lives in Lima.
Whoever wins will have a hard time governing as Congress is fragmented. Castillo's Free Peru is the largest single party, just ahead of Fujimori's Popular Force, but without a majority.
If Fujimori wins "it won't be easy given the mistrust her name and that of her family generates in many sectors. She'll have to quickly calm the markets and generate ways to reactivate them," political scientist Jessica Smith told AFP.
If Castillo triumphs, he'll have to "consolidate a parliamentary majority that will allow him to deliver his ambitious program," added Smith.
But in either case "it will take time to calm the waters because there's fierce polarisation and an atmosphere of social conflict," analyst Luis Pasaraindico told AFP.
Some 160,000 police and soldiers were deployed to guarantee peace on election day as 25 million people were due to vote, plus another one million from the Peruvian diaspora living in 75 countries around the world.
The new president will take office on July 28, replacing centrist interim leader Francisco Sagasti.
by Francisco Jara with Carlos Mandujano, AFP