Three candidates were locked in a tight presidential election yesterday, with Peruvians so polarized over the candidacy of a nationalistic former army officer that he was taunted by hundreds of opponents as he cast his ballot. Exit polls showed a race too close to call with a run-off between the two top finishers expected in late May or early June. A victory by the retired army officer, Ollanta Humala, 43, could tilt this Andean country leftward toward Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez. His main challengers - Alan Garcia, a former president, and Lourdes Flores, a former businesswoman - generally favour free-market policies that have generated strong growth but little improvement in the lives of poor Peruvians. Ollanta Humala told reporters before voting Sunday that Peruvian voters had a chance to "begin the nation's great transformation." Humala has promised to spend more on the poor and take on Peru's elite. He has aligned himself with populist firebrand leader Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, with whom he shares a similar history of having led a military rebellion against an elected government. A big woman with a toothy smile, former congresswoman Lourdes Flores is an embracing maternal figure in a country where women are symbols of honesty, and she hopes that image will help her replicate the triumph of socialist Michelle Bachelet, who was elected as neighboring Chile's first woman president last December. The third strong candidate out of 20 contenders is former president Alan Garcia, 56, a skilled orator and seasoned politician, whose 1985-90 administration ended in surging guerrilla violence, food shortages and annual inflation that exceeded 7,000 percent. Humala's lead in the polls has withered in the last week and the three are running neck-and-neck. Preaching a nationalist message, Humala has pledged to give preference to Peruvian-owned businesses over foreign investors, impose higher taxes on foreign companies and spend the money on the poor. He says he'll rewrite Peru's constitution to strip power from a political class widely viewed as corrupt. Humala openly admires the 1968-75 leftist dictatorship of Gen. Juan Velasco, who took over Peru's media, implemented a largely failed agrarian reform and forged close ties with the Soviet Union. Novelist and one-time presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa has appealed to his countrymen to reject Humala, urging them "not to be so blind, so amnesiac, so foolish" as to elect another authoritarian leader six years after Alberto Fujimori's decade-long presidency collapsed. Humala burst onto the political scene when he led a small bloodless military rebellion in 2000 a month before Fujimori's corruption-riddled government fell. In his final campaign rally Thurday, Humala vowed to take down the "fascist dictatorship of the economically powerful," drawing a roar from supporters, most of them from his base of dark-skinned mestizos. International investors and Peru's middle and upper classes are frightened by Humala's rhetoric, as are many working-class Peruvians who have a job or small business to lose. But the rhetoric resonates with Peru's poorest. President Alejandro Toledo, who cannot run for a second consecutive term, boasts of Peru's annual 5 percent economic growth during the past five years, but during the same time the poverty level dropped only two points, from 54 percent to 52 percent. Even Flores, labeled the candidate of big business by her rivals, has criticized Toledo's "trickle-down" economics and promised government support for small business owners and farmers. But the 46-year-old is viewed with suspicion among the poor because of her light complexion, privileged upbringing and pro-business views. Garcia, of the center-left Aprista Party, was called "Latin America's Kennedy" in 1985 when he became the region's youngest president. But his term ended with Peru's economy in shambles. Still reviled by many Peruvians as a snake-charmer politician, Garcia paints himself as having matured since the 1980s, when the corrosive cocktail of youth and power went to his head. Voters also will be electing a 120-member Congress. No party is expected to win a majority.