Leftist teacher holds razor-thin lead in Peru presidential election

Leftist teacher holds razor-thin lead in Peru presidential election

The scion of a jailed autocrat and the son of illiterate peasant farmers are fighting vote by vote for the presidency of Peru in an election which has thrown into sharp relief the Andean country’s deep fault lines of class and geography.

With more than 94% of the official vote counted, hard-left candidate Pedro Castillo holds a razor-thin lead of about 0.2% over his far-right opponent, Keiko Fujimori, an advantage of slightly more than 40,000 votes.

Ballots continue to be counted in remote rural areas – which are expected to favour Castillo, 51, a teacher and union activist – and also from expatriate voters, who are are expected to heavily favour Fujmori, 46, the daughter of jailed former 1990s president Alberto Fujimori.

The vote in Covid-battered nation has split the country between the poor, rural Andes and the wealthier and more urban northern coast and capital Lima. It comes amid one of the worst economic slowdowns in the region, which has pushed nearly 10% of Peru’s population into poverty, millions into unemployment and prompted many others to leave major cities and return to their rural villages.

The results show existing polarisations in society pushed to extremes, with Castillo gaining more than 80% of the vote in the poor – but mineral-rich – southern Andean regions such as Ayacucho, Puno and Cusco, while Fujimori held a decisive lead in Lima, where she won in every one of its 43 districts, and the city’s neighbouring port district Callao.

“Given how close the race is, we believe it likely that whoever is declared the loser will contest the results,” said Nicolas Saldias, Latin America and the Caribbean analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“This will likely lead to a prolonged period of political instability as accusations of fraud are likely to occur and trigger social unrest,” he added.

The run-up to the vote was marked by scaremongering around Castillo’s proposals for resource nationalisation and greater state intervention the economy in the market-friendly country.

Roxana Araníbal Fernandez, 56, an insurance company worker, who voted for Fujimori in the middle-class Miraflores neighbourhood in Lima, said: “We want the country to keep progressing, we don’t want to copy models which have seen don’t work from Venezuela or Cuba.”

But the legacy of Fujimori’s father – who is serving a 25-year sentence over corruption and death squad murders – and her own record as a politician play against her.

Fujimori narrowly lost the two previous election runoffs, but she has also racked up accusations of graft, accused of receiving more than $17m in illegal campaign funds and heading a criminal organisation, and could face a 30-year jail term if convicted. She denies the allegations, which she describes as politically motivated.

“I voted for Pedro Castillo because we should give him a chance,” said Rosemary Carlos, 46, an administrator. “Keiko Fujimori is linked to criminals… We can’t have Fujimori again.”

On social issues, Castillo differs little from Fujimori: he opposes sex education, legal abortion and same-sex marriage, and has said LGBTQ+ rights are “not a priority”.

Rodrigo Barnechea, a Peruvian political scientist who specialises in populism in the Andes, said anti-Fujimorismo combined with a strong sense of identification with Castillo in the Andean region could propel him to victory.

“This identification explains why Castillo – who has proved to be a weak, improvised and erratic candidate – nevertheless has had very stable numbers in the polls and the results,” he said.

“He is standing on strong durable divisions that have structured Peruvians politics for a good par of 20th and 21st centuries,” he added.

“Whoever wins the election will have a very weak electoral mandate that will make governing exceptionally difficult as neither Castillo nor Fujimori has a legislative majority,” Saldias said.