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LATIN AMERICA | 12-04-2021 22:23

Far-left schoolteacher takes lead as Peru counts presidential votes

Union leader and teacher Pedro Castillo takes surprise, though slim, lead in Peru's presidential election, and will likely face a right-wing rival in a run-off in June, incomplete results showed Monday.

A far-left union leader and teacher has taken a surprise, though slim, lead in Peru's presidential election, and will likely face a right-wing rival in a run-off 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 right-wing 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 finalised, economist Hernando de Soto, and celibate staunch Catholic Rafael López 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 Meléndez 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 polarised.

"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 US$24) for not voting.

Peru's government had decided to press ahead with elections as South America battles a surge in infections fuelled by new virus variants believed to be more contagious.

The coronavirus has killed more than 54,600 in the country of 33 million people.

Uncertain outcome

Six of Peru's 18 presidential candidates, including Castillo, have contracted the virus.

Despite the pandemic outlook, election campaigning had continued until Thursday, with candidates drawing hundreds of followers to rallies.

Apart from dealing with the health crisis, the future president will have a full in-tray with deep economic decline on top of the pile.

The uncertain outcome of the vote had the markets worried, and the Peruvian sol plunged to a record low 3.8 to the US dollar last month.

Peru has been in recession since the second quarter of last year after coronavirus lockdowns shuttered businesses and crippled the all-important tourism sector.

Its economy contracted more than 11 percent in 2020, four million people lost their jobs and another five million dropped into poverty.

On the Lima Stock Exchange, the S&P/BVL Peru General Index, a broad benchmark, fell 2.29 percent on Monday and the dollar rose slightly to 3.64 soles.

The country has also been convulsed by political upheaval driven by claims of corruption at the highest echelons.

Whoever is sworn in on July 28 will be Peru's fifth president in three years, after three fell within days of each other in November 2020 amid protests that left two people dead and hundreds injured.

Peruvians also voted for 130 members of Congress.

by Luis Jaime Cisneros & Francisco Jara, AFP

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