LIMA: Peruvian leftist presidential candidate Pedro Castillo of Peru Libre waves to supporters from his party headquarters’ balcony in Lima. – AFP

LIMA: Leftist Pedro Castillo held a razor-thin lead Wednesday in Peru’s polarizing presidential election as his right-wing rival Keiko Fujimori made renewed allegations of voter fraud she claimed involved half a million ballots. With 99 percent of votes counted from Sunday’s presidential poll, rural school teacher and union leader Castillo retained a tiny lead of 50.2 percent over Fujimori’s 49.7 percent. Late Wednesday Fujimori asked the National Electoral Tribunal (JNE) to annul the results of 802 polling stations, the equivalent of 200,000 votes.

She also asked for another 300,000 ballots to be reviewed, so “half a million votes are in play,” she said at a press conference. Fujimori, the daughter of jailed former president Alberto Fujimori, led in early counting but as Castillo slowly gained ground she alleged “irregularities” and “signs of fraud.” Peruvian authorities and election observers have dismissed any possibility of counting fraud.

For Fujimori, the stakes are higher than mere power: she faces more than 30 years in prison if convicted 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, election victory would see the charges suspended until after her term, but defeat could see her put on trial.

Crises and corruption
Peruvians voted on Sunday for their fifth president in three years after a series of crises and corruption scandals saw three different leaders in office in a single week last year. Both candidates had previously agreed to respect the outcome. As Fujimori spoke, Castillo thanked backers rallying in his support. “Let’s not be provoked by those who want to see this country in chaos. Therefore, we make a call for peace and tranquility,” he tweeted. Castillo earlier said party observers considered his triumph a done deal, even as authorities held back on announcing an outcome.

“In the name of the Peruvian people,” Castillo thanked “embassies and governments from Latin America and other countries” for messages of congratulations on his “victory.” Late Wednesday Castillo supporters rallied outside the vote counting office in downtown Lima, while a pro-Fujimori crowd gathered in a large Lima park to denounce the vote “fraud.” No government has officially recognized a Castillo victory, although Bolivia’s former leftist president Evo Morales sent a message of “congratulations for this victory.”

The win is “also for the Latin American people who want to live with social justice!” tweeted Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president. Castillo is ahead by 79,000 votes, but with ballots still being tallied and votes being challenged by both sides, the process will likely take 10 to 12 days to be fully resolved, an official from the vote counting authority ONPE told AFP. As in Peru’s three previous presidential elections, also tightly-run, the tail-end of vote counting has been slow due to delays in the arrival of ballots in Lima from rural and jungle areas, and from abroad-where one million of the country’s 25 million eligible voters live.

Fujimori has taken most of the expat votes counted, but Castillo is widely popular among rural electors. Overcoming that difference for Fujimori “will be very difficult, because there should be more votes that remain to be counted in Peru than abroad,” analyst Hugo Otero told AFP. Peru’s military committed itself in a statement to “respect the will of the people expressed at the ballot box,” even as calls circulated on social media for the armed forces to prevent Castillo from taking power.

Major challenges face victor
Both Castillo and Fujimori have said they will respect democracy and form governments that will lead to economic stability. Whoever wins will lead a nation battered by recession and the world’s highest coronavirus death rate, with more than 186,000 deaths among its 33 million population. Two million Peruvians have lost their jobs during the pandemic and nearly a third now live in poverty, official figures show. Peruvians will also be looking for stability, with seven of their last 10 leaders either convicted or under investigation for graft.

Fujimori supports 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. Fujimori warned that Peru risked becoming a new Venezuela or North Korea under her rival, while Castillo has pointed to the Fujimori family’s history of corruption scandals. – AFP