Peru on edge as presidential vote count drags

·4-min read

Peru was on edge Tuesday as right-wing populist Keiko Fujimori cried foul after far-left rival Pedro Castillo took a narrow lead in the final stretch of vote-counting to decide who will be the country's next president.

Peruvians voted on Sunday for their fifth president in three years after a series of crises and corruption scandals saw three different leaders in the office in a single week last year.

But two days after the vote, the final tally could still be some way off, with ballots trickling into Lima from Peru's far-flung rural areas -- where Castillo enjoys strong support -- and from abroad.

Fujimori's hope rests in large part on the expat vote, with about a million of Peru's 25 million eligible voters having cast their ballot abroad. But these could still take days or weeks to count.

With just under 97 percent of votes tallied by Tuesday 8:00 pm (0100 GMT Wednesday), rural school teacher Castillo was creeping ahead with 50.31 percent, compared to third-time presidential candidate Fujimori's 49.68 percent.

Castillo's lead had passed 100,000 votes.

Fujimori, 46, had led in early counting, but Castillo, 51, gained ground as votes from rural areas started coming in.

Late Monday, Fujimori alleged "irregularities" and "signs of fraud," telling a press conference she had evidence of "a clear intention to boycott the popular will."

Around 200 of her supporters protested outside the ONPE electoral body's headquarters in Lima on Tuesday.

"No to communism in disguise," protester Ileana Chavez told AFP while demanding "justice."

For Fujimori, the stakes are higher than mere power.

Prosecutors in Peru have said they want to seek a prison term of more than 30 years for her on charges of taking money from scandal-tainted Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to fund presidential bids in 2011 and 2016. She has already spent 16 months in pretrial detention.

Under Peruvian law, an election victory would see the charges suspended until after her term, but defeat could see her put on trial.

- 'Rebirth of a new country' -

Castillo's Free Peru party has urged election authorities to "protect the vote."

On Twitter he wrote: "We must be vigilant in defending the democracy that is expressed in each and every vote, inside and outside our beloved Peru. We cannot rest. May this historic vigil enable the rebirth of a new country."

The ONPE dismissed allegations of fraud in the count, and the Civil Transparency Association's Adriana Urrutia told El Comercio newspaper, "There is no evidence that allows us to speak of electoral fraud."

But if the close vote ultimately favors Fujimori, analyst Hugo Otero told AFP, it would be difficult for her to "justify her triumph if she's claimed fraud."

An observer mission from the Organization of American States (OAS) said the candidates' "conduct in these crucial hours is decisive to maintain calm."

- Polar opposites -

Whoever wins the ideological battle between left and right will take leadership of a nation battered by recession and the world's worst coronavirus fatality rate, with more than 186,000 deaths among its 33 million population.

Plus, two million Peruvians have lost their jobs during the pandemic and nearly a third now live in poverty, according to official figures.

Peruvians will also be looking for stability, with seven of their last 10 leaders either convicted or under investigation for graft.

In April, Castillo caused an upset by topping the first round of voting in the election to replace the latest caretaker president, Francisco Sagasti. Fujimori came second.

The relatively unknown teacher was also consistently ahead of his rival, though narrowly so, in opinion polls ahead of Sunday's runoff vote.

- 'Communist' threat -

Fujimori, the daughter of jailed ex-president Alberto Fujimori -- he was convicted of corruption and massacre-related charges -- backs a neoliberal economic model of tax cuts and boosting private activity to generate jobs.

Castillo has pledged to nationalize vital industries, raise taxes and increase state regulation. He has vowed to forgo a presidential salary and live on his teacher's wages.

Favored by the business sector and middle classes, Fujimori -- her bastion is the capital Lima -- sought to portray Castillo as a communist threat and warned that Peru risked becoming a new Venezuela or North Korea.

Rural-based Castillo, in turn, pointed to the Fujimori family's history of corruption scandals.

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