By Marco Aquino
LIMA (Reuters) - Peru's presidential candidates, starting a string of debates ahead of elections next week, have sparred over the pandemic with promises of vaccines "at any cost", tension over lockdowns and plans to take control of the Andean country's medical oxygen supply as coronavirus cases soare again.
The debate late on Monday featured six of 18 candidates and the only two female contenders, the leftist Veronika Mendoza and the right-wing Keiko Fujimori. Both are among six front-runners in the crowded and wide-ranging field ahead of the April 11 vote, recent polls have showed.
Peru, mired in political conflict and economic recession for much of the past year, has fully vaccinated less than 1% of its population. That predicament - and how to reactivate the ailing economy of the world´s No. 2 copper producer -- have dominated debate among the wide-ranging field of presidential candidates.
Mendoza promised to immediately install 1,000 public health centers with oxygen supply and said the state should take "temporary control of the production and distribution" of medical inputs to assure much-needed supply.
Fujimori said the country needed to get people back to work and promised to revive the hard-hit economy, making working hours more flexible and generating more employment.
"The quarantines have been a failure," Fujimori said.
Former sports commentator Alberto Beingolea, from the Popular Christian Party, said the state should use the private sector to speed up vaccine purchases, while low-ranking center-right candidate Cesar Acuna, promised to purchase vaccines "at any cost" and bring the virus to its knees in the coming year.
George Forsyth, a former professional soccer player and ex-mayor of a poor neighborhood of the capital Lima, strayed momentarily from talk of the virus, promising to put a halt to runaway crime and corruption in Peru.
"Today I tell the criminals: With me, the party is over," said Forsyth.
Recent polls show six candidates vying for the top spot in the first-round ballot, though the crowded field and relatively low approval ratings suggest a likely runoff vote on June 6.
Another six candidates are slated to debate Tuesday night, while the populist Yonhy Lescano, who tops recent polls with between 11% and 14% support, will face contenders on a Wednesday night debate.
(Reporting by Marco Aquino; Writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Alistair Bell)