Tensions rose on the streets of Lima on Friday as supporters of both Peruvian presidential candidates, Pedro Castillo and Keiko Fujimori, began to lose patience with a dragging count. Five days after a divisive electoral run-off between the two candidates, no final result has been confirmed.
Supporters of Castillo began to gather in downtown Lima amid unconfirmed reports that the Electoral Court was considering extending the deadline for parties to seek the annulment of suspicious ballots, which already expired on Wednesday evening.
“If it’s true that the JNE is planning to extend the deadline to annul ballots, they’d be violating the electoral order,” Castillo wrote on his Twitter account, in reference to the court. “I call on the Peruvian people to stay on alert.”
Fujimori has accused Castillo’s Peru Libre party of tampering with ballots and asked for the annulment of 200,000 votes and the review of another 300,000.
The Electoral Court didn’t reply to requests for comment on whether they are considering an extension of the deadline.
With 99.6 percent of ballots tallied, Castillo has 50.17 percent against 49.83 percent for Fujimori, which equates to a gap of about 60,000 votes.
If the electoral authorities rule in her favour, Fujimori could be declared the winner and so delay a corruption trial until the end of her term, under Peruvian law.
Prosecutors have said they would seek a 30-year jail term for Fujimori on charges of taking money from scandal-tainted Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to fund failed presidential bids in 2011 and 2016. The 46-year-old denies the allegations, and has already spent 16 months in pre-trial detention.
On Thursday, a prosecutor sought preventive custody for Fujimori, claiming she had violated her parole conditions by meeting with a witness in the case. A decision is pending.
Battle of extremes
Since Castillo emerged from relative obscurity to win the April 11 first round with the self-professed Marxist party, the campaign has been a battle of the extremes, with right-wing populist Fujimori running on a conservative platform and warning that communism could be installed if she were to lose.
Those polar opposite views were expressed at the polls with most of Castillo’s support coming from the rural, Andean areas and Fujimori winning the largest urban areas including Lima. And now, with the vote count coming down to the wire, the potential for political violence has increased as uncertainty grows.
Underlining the instability, the Peruvian Navy was forced to respond to rumours running rampant on social media Friday that a coup d’état was being planned.
Castillo, for his part, has asked his supporters this week to remain calm and patient while the votes are counted and to not fall for provocations.
Observers from the Organisation of America States (OAS), along with President Francisco Sagasti, both said they had seen no signs of widespread irregularities or fraud that would call into question the validity of the process. Peruvian authorities and election observers have also dismissed any possibility of vote-counting fraud.
Sagasti called on both candidates Friday to "maintain calm in difficult times," speaking to both sides of what has been a polarised presidential campaign.
"The task of a head of State is to keep the country calm in difficult times. In that effort I got in touch with several people who... have contact with both candidates," the caretaker president tweeted early Friday. "My request was the same for both: lower the tension and wait for the official results."
Even without a final tally, leftist Latin American leaders have started congratulating Castillo, including Argentina's leader Alberto Fernández. The Peronist leader’s message, the first from a sitting president in office, drew ire from the Foreign Ministry in Lima, which said it was an "error" to pronounce before the official result is announced.
Castillo has also received congratulations from two former presidents of Brazil – Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – the ex-president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, and former Bolivian leader Evo Morales. Among sitting leaders, he received felicitations from Nicaragua's first lady and vice-president, Rosario Murillo, and Bolivian leader Luis Arce.
Speaking Wednesday evening, Castillo said that party observers considered his triumph a done deal as he thanked "embassies and governments from Latin America and other countries" for messages of congratulations on his "victory."
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 November, the last one being Sagasti.
Whoever wins will lead a nation battered by recession and the world's highest coronavirus death rate, with more than 187,000 deaths among its 33 million population. Two million Peruvians lost their jobs during the pandemic and nearly a third now live in poverty, official figures show.
Peruvians will also be hoping for stability, with seven of their last 10 leaders either convicted or under investigation for graft.