Ollanta Humala, the former soldier and Peruvian presidential candidate, was caught off-guard last Sunday night.

Appearing on Cuarto Poder, one of Peru’s more serious political programmes, Mr Humala, the radical nationalist who topped the poll in the first round of elections last month, was repeating a well-rehearsed speech about how Alan García, his rival in the second round, was avoiding debating with him. He dismissed a date Mr García had proposed as “a smokescreen”.

But when pressed to name a date of his own, Mr Humala fumbled, offering what was clearly intended to be no more than a suggestion. “It could be on May 21,” he said. “A Sunday would be good, to allow a bigger audience.” Mr García immediately called his bluff, telephoning the television station to accept the date.

So on Sunday Peru will have a presidential TV debate that could seal the fate of the second round to be held on June 4. Mr Humala would probably have preferred to avoid a debate, as did his ally, Evo Morales, who in December won presidential elections in neighbouring Bolivia. Compared to Mr García, the nationalist is a weak public speaker with a poor grasp of policy and Peruvian history. “The format will play to Alan García’s strengths,” says John Crabtree of St Antony’s college, Oxford, and author of Peru under García: An Opportunity Lost. “Alan is a smart operator and a formidable opponent, and physically he will stand head and shoulders above Humala.”

If Mr García lives up to his billing, it will give further credence to the widespread view among analysts that victory is already his. All the opinion polls released in recent weeks have given him a healthy lead. The latest, released on Thursday by the University of Lima – whose polls ahead of the first round were closest to the result – shows him 20 points ahead of Mr Humala.

Mr Humala’s camp still clings publicly to the hope the large number of uncommitted voters – up to one-in-four according to some polls – masks a “hidden vote” in remote communities that favours their candidate. But the first-round results, in which Mr Humala gained 30.6 per cent, in line with forecasts, suggest otherwise.

If the polls are correct, it would complete a remarkable comeback. To most Peruvians, Mr García’s name still conjours up memories of his disastrous presidency between 1985 and 1990, which ended in economic collapse and with the serious threat that Maoist Shining Path guerrillas would defeat the state.

In 2001, that history was still raw enough to deny him victory in the second round. “Alan García’s main enemy isn’t Ollanta Humala but his own presidency, the consequences of which were catastrophic,” says Augusto Alvárez Rodrich, director of the Peru 21 newspaper.

Mr García’s strategy for facing his past has been two-fold. He has apologised for his mismanagement and says he has learnt from his mistakes, while simultaneously attempting to rewrite his record by pointing out the adverse political and economic conditions he faced.

But his political rebirth has little to do with either of these arguments convincing Peruvian voters and although he leads the polls, his negative ratings remain high. This was reflected in the first round, in which Mr García only managed to squeeze through with about 60,000 votes more than Lourdes Flores, his rightwing rival who ran a lacklustre campaign.

Rather, Mr García’s main virtue is that he is not Mr Humala, whose negative ratings are even higher. “The election campaign has been a ‘war of fear’,” says Luis Benavente of the University of Lima. “The two candidates who have made it through are the two who generate the most fear and who have the highest rejection rates.”

Both candidates have been faced with the task of persuading voters they are not as bad as each other. “García will probably win, because he has taken advantage of being seen as the mal menor [least worst],” says Mr Crabtree.

One way in which Mr García has done so is by casting the election as a choice between “responsible change” and the sort of populism espoused by Hugo Chávez, the flamboyant Venezuelan leader. Mr García’s public spat with Mr Chávez last month resulted in Lima and Caracas cutting off diplomatic ties and prompted a string of high-profile endorsements for Mr García, even from longstanding foes such as Alejandro Toledo, the president, and Mario Vargas Llosa, the novelist and former presidential contender.

There are at least two other factors that have aided Mr García. First, unlike his opponent, he leads a party with a long history that is Peru’s best-organised electoral machine. Second, polls suggest that most Peruvians are cautiously optimistic about the economy. Although support for Mr García tends to be less than enthusiastic, he is generally seen as the safer pair of hands to maintain current levels of economic growth.

But his strongest card is who he is not. “García represents the possibility of stopping Humala,” says Mr Benavente. “And if he wins, people will forgive his sins because he will have saved Peru from the threat of Humala.”

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