LIMA – A rural teacher-turned-political novice and the daughter of an imprisoned former president traded the lead Monday in a tight race for Peru’s presidency in a runoff election as the coronavirus pandemic continues to batter the Andean country.
With 96% of ballots tallied, leftist Pedro Castillo had 50.2% of the vote, while conservative Keiko Fujimori had 49.7%, according to official results. This is Fujimori’s third run for president, a role her father held in the 1990s.
The difference between the two polarizing candidates was just over 87,000 votes. The figures released by Peru’s elections agency, the National Office of Electoral Processes, included almost all votes cast near the country’s electoral processing centers. The agency was still waiting for the arrival of votes from remote rural areas and abroad.
“No one can say for sure at this point who is going to win,” Fernando Tuesta, a political scientist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and former Peruvian elections chief, told a local radio station. In 2016, now-former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski defeated Fujimori by just 42,597 votes.
The partial map of votes showed a country split in two. Castillo overwhelmingly dominated the impoverished rural areas of the Andes and much of the Amazon. Fujimori was the candidate of the business elite, dominating the capital and other cities on the Pacific coast.
The cities hardest hit by the Shining Path rebel group during Peru’s internal conflict between 1980 and 2000, which left almost 70,000 people dead, voted for Castillo. It was an adverse result for Fujimori, who during the campaign accused the professor without evidence of ties to terrorism.
The areas where international mining companies are seeking to expand extractive projects also voted almost entirely for Castillo. In the country’s poorest district, Uchuraccay, the teacher captured 87% of the votes, while in the richest district, San Isidro, Fujimori prevailed with 88%.
Fujimori, at a news conference, charged that her rival's campaign staff carried out a “a series of irregularities” during the election, but she did not present conclusive evidence. She predicted her support would increase when votes from Peruvians living abroad were counted.
Meanwhile, Castillo told supporters that the “popular will” should be respected.
"I will be the first to enforce the will of the Peruvian people, here and there,” he said.
The polarizing populist candidates have promised coronavirus vaccines for all and other strategies to alleviate the health emergency that has killed more than 180,000 people in Peru and pushed millions into poverty. The election followed a statistical revision from Peru’s government that more than doubled the COVID-19 death toll previously acknowledged by officials.
Voters across Peru, where voting is mandatory, headed to the polls throughout Sunday under a set schedule meant to minimize long lines. Pre-election polls indicated the candidates were virtually tied heading into the runoff. In the first round of voting, featuring 18 candidates, neither received more than 20% support and both were strongly opposed by sectors of Peruvian society.
“The candidate who becomes (president), either Keiko or Pedro, the people, the only thing we have to do is accept it, but they better govern well,” said Lucia Carrion, a street vendor in Lima. “There is so much corruption. One of them has to stop so much corruption that there is here in Peru.”
The pandemic not only has strained Peru’s medical and cemetery infrastructure, left millions unemployed and highlighted longstanding inequalities in the country. It has also deepened people’s mistrust of government as it mismanaged the COVID-19 response and a secret vaccination drive for the well-connected erupted into a national scandal.
Amid protests and corruption allegations, the South American country cycled through three presidents in November. Some analysts warn this election could be another tipping point for people’s simmering frustrations and bring more political instability.
President Francisco Sagasti after voting said the candidates should respect the results and ask their followers to refrain from staging protests over the outcome.
Fujimori, a former congresswoman, has promised various bonuses to people, including a $2,500 one-time payment to each family with at least one COVID-19 victim. She has also proposed distributing 40% of a tax for the extraction of minerals, oil or gas among families who live near those areas.
Keiko Fujimori herself has been imprisoned as part of a graft investigation though she was later released. Her father, Alberto Fujimori, governed between 1990 and 2000 and is serving a 25-year sentence for corruption and the killings of 25 people. She has promised to free him should she win.
Castillo until recently was a rural schoolteacher in the country’s third-poorest district, deep in the Andes. The son of illiterate peasants entered politics by leading a teachers’ strike. While his stance on nationalizing key sectors of the economy has softened, he remains committed to rewriting the constitution that was approved under the regime of Fujimori’s father.
Both candidates oppose abortion and same-sex marriage.
Peru is the second largest copper exporter in the world and mining accounts for almost 10% of its GDP and 60% of its exports, so Castillo’s initial proposal to nationalize the nation’s mining industry set off alarm bells among business leaders. But regardless of who gets picked to succeed Sagasti on July 28, investors will remain skittish.
The stock market in Lima registered declines of more than 7% and, complying with its regulations, closed its operations for 20 minutes and then reopened. The dollar exchange rate also reached a record high.
Associated Press writer Regina Garcia Cano reported this story from Mexico City and AP writer Franklin Briceno reported in Lima.