Peruvian presidential candidate for the Peru Libre (Free Peru) Party, Pedro Castillo, waves as he leaves a polling station in Cajamarca, Peru, after casting his vote during general elections. – AFP

LIMA: A far-left union leader and teacher has taken a surprise, though slim, lead in Peru’s presidential election, and will likely face a rightwing rival in a runoff in June, incomplete results showed Monday. With nearly 90 percent of ballots counted by Monday evening, leftist Pedro Castillo was in the lead with 18.83 percent-much higher than predicted by opinion polls which had not even placed him in the top five. He will likely square off on June 6 against corruption-accused Keiko Fujimori, a rightwing populist who has 13.21 percent, according to results released by the ONPE electoral office. It will be Fujimori’s third shot at the top job.

Sunday’s election, held in Peru’s worst week of the coronavirus pandemic, saw no single candidate able to fire up crisis-weary voters and muster a decisive 51-percent majority. With the count not yet finalized, economist Hernando de Soto, and celibate staunch Catholic Rafael Lopez Aliaga-both on the right of the spectrum-remained hot on Fujimori’s heels.

“The change and the struggle are just beginning,” said 51-year-old Castillo, who was virtually unknown until 2017, when he led thousands of teachers in a protracted national strike that resulted in government compromise. He represents the small far-left Free Peru party, and has made campaign promises to eject “illegal foreigners” who commit crimes, bring back the death penalty, and have the government take control of Peru’s energy and mineral resources. “With Castillo we have an anti-establishment left; socially conservative and anti-free market,” political scientist Carlos Melendez told AFP.

‘Most fragmented’ election
Fujimori, daughter of jailed ex-president Alberto Fujimori, faces charges brought against her by Peruvian prosecutors for allegedly taking money from scandal-tainted Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to fund her presidential bids in 2011 and 2016. If the leader of the Popular Force beats Castillo in June, the charges will be suspended until after her term as Peruvian law which exempts sitting presidents from prosecution.

For Ipsos Peru chief Alfredo Torres the second round will be deeply polarized. “There is an anti-Fujimori sentiment in one section of the population and an anti-communist sentiment in another,” he said. Sunday’s election, with some 25 million eligible voters and 18 candidates, was held one day after Peru reported a record 384 deaths from Covid-19 in 24 hours.

As some Peruvians lined up to vote-which is mandatory-others queued for oxygen refills for ill relatives battling COVID-19. Almost a third of voters had declared themselves undecided. Many said they turned out, despite fear of infection, merely to avoid the fine of 88 soles (about $24) for not voting. Peru’s government had decided to press ahead with elections as South America battles a surge in infections fueled by new virus variants believed to be more contagious. The coronavirus has killed more than 54,600 in the country of 33 million people. – AFP