LIMA, PERU, JUNE 9 -- Villagers in the tropical northeast dig out from an earthquake while a volcano belches fire in the arid south. Drought dries up the rivers, pestilence fills the hospitals, war rages in the highlands -- plagues that begin to seem almost Biblical. Many Peruvians seek less a president than a messiah.

Sunday, two novice politicians, both insisting they are not politicians at all, compete in a runoff for the long-shot chance to save Peru.

Novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and academic Alberto Fujimori are in a neck-and-neck race, polls say, with the outcome balanced on the last-minute whims of the undecided. The pollsters were so slow to read Fujimori's stunning rise in the weeks before the first-round vote April 8, however, that their predictions this time are both framed and received with great caution.

The campaign has brought into the open deep racial, economic, religious and regional cleavages that for decades were ignored or paid mere lip service. It has sent embarrassed pundits back to their word processors to rewrite the book on the Peruvian electorate.

Most of all, it has focused attention on the sad state into which this nation, once the proud seat of a vast and wealthy empire, has fallen.

Numbers tell part of the story. The economy is a wreck, with inflation of 2,775 percent last year. Cumulative inflation for outgoing President Alan Garcia's five years in office will top 1 million percent, according to some estimates. Prices rose 12 percent last week alone. A recent study showed that only 18 percent of the population is fully employed, down from 54 percent six years ago. During 1988 and 1989, wages and salaries in Lima fell nearly 60 percent in real terms.

Shining Path, the Maoist insurgency, has expanded its influence; now more than 15 percent of the population lives in areas where the guerrillas have some measure of control, according to diplomatic sources. Of the 18,000 deaths caused by political violence since Shining Path launched its armed struggle in 1980, 5,000 have come in the last 18 months. Killings are running at about 10 a day.

One of the areas where the guerrillas are most active is the remote Upper Huallaga Valley, which produces about 60 percent of the world's coca, the plant from which cocaine is processed. Anti-drug efforts are stymied by the open acknowledgement that Peru cannot now afford to lose the money -- between $600 million and $1.2 billion annually -- that the coca trade brings in.

A drought has caused a severe water shortage. Guerrilla attacks on power lines and government inattention to maintenance have produced daily blackouts. An earthquake last week destroyed several jungle towns and killed more than 100 people. Meanwhile, a volcano near the city of Arequipa is erupting, spewing noxious gases that are poisoning the local water supply.

Vying for the presidency are two unlikely candidates -- a bespectacled former university president, the son of Japanese immigrants, who promises gradual reform, and a patrician man of letters, often touted for the Nobel Prize, who advocates abrupt and thoroughgoing change.

Fujimori, 51, has capitalized on long-simmering public resentment of the white elite, a tiny minority in a country where most people are of mixed race. In the villages and the shantytowns he tells Peruvians that a Vargas Llosa government would be one of the "little white ones," and urges voters to choose "a president like you."

Fujimori is overwhelmingly favored in the provinces, which long have been ignored by Lima. The 54-year-old Vargas Llosa is expected to win in the capital, home to about a third of the electorate.

Evangelical Protestants have worked hard to elect Fujimori, giving rise to concern within the Roman Catholic church and leading some of Vargas Llosa's supporters to warn that "sects" are trying to take over the country.

One clear lesson from the campaign is how little faith Peruvians have that politicians are able or even inclined to solve the country's problems. Fujimori and Vargas Llosa are both political neophytes, and each has spent considerable effort trying to damage the other by linking him with established political figures. "Politician" has become a dirty name.

"When there is an election we see all the politicians," said Victoria Guerra, 36, who lives in Huaycan, a shantytown on the outskirts of Lima. "They all want to help. But afterward, they forget us. We disappear."

Guerra spent an afternoon this week mixing mortar and sorting bricks for her husband, Cesar Villagomez, who is building a tiny house for the family. They had hoped to finish the house months ago, but bricks have become so expensive "we practically buy them one by one," Guerra said. Neither she nor her husband knows much about construction, she said, but hiring someone to help is out of the question.

Villagomez is only occasionally able to find work. Guerra said she used to work in a glassmaking factory but it closed. Now she spends her days tending to their five children and keeping house. The drought means that amid her other chores she must track down a supply of water each day and lug back heavy bucketfuls so she can cook the family's meals.

Both Vargas Llosa and Fujimori have campaigned in Huaycan, promising to make things better. Guerra said she is more inclined to trust Fujimori -- "The Japanese people seem to have a good sense of the common welfare," she said. But still she cannot bring herself to be optimistic.

"We hope our lives will become a bit easier," she said. "But I go to the store and I can't buy meat, I can't buy milk. I want to believe in the future, but things just get worse every day."