Polarising poll in Peru fails to produce clear winner

Peru’s presidential election has ended in a technical dead heat, raising the prospect of days of bickering over the result and possible recounts.

An exit poll published by Ipsos suggested rightwing populist Keiko Fujimori was fractionally ahead of her leftwing rival Pedro Castillo, with 50.3 per cent to his 49.7 per cent.

That sparked celebrations from Fujimoro’s supporters, who poured on to the streets of Lima waving the orange flags of her Popular Force party.

But three hours later electoral authorities published a count based on early official results, showing almost a mirror image of the exit poll, with Castillo on 50.2 per cent and Fujimori on 49.8. Her supporters fell quiet while Castillo’s celebrated in Tacabamba, a town high in the northern Andes where he cast his ballot on Sunday.

An official update showed Fujimori in the lead again, this time with 52.9 per cent to Castillo’s 47.1.

Both candidates said they would wait for the full results, which could take days. They urged patience from their respective camps, wary of the potential for violence at the end of one of the most polarising election campaigns in the Latin American country’s history.

“I think it’ll be Thursday at least before we get the full results,” said Denisse Rodríguez-Olivari, a political analyst in Lima. “At least for now things seem calm. Let’s hope it stays that way.”

The election has been an extraordinary tussle between populists from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Castillo is a rural primary school teacher turned hard-left populist, while Fujimori is the widely disliked daughter of Peru’s authoritarian former president Alberto Fujimori. Neither appears equipped to address Peru’s crushing problems of the coronavirus pandemic, corruption, inequality, poverty and political infighting.

Keiko Fujimori, centre, the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, took 50.3% of the vote, according to an exit poll © AFP via Getty Images

Financial markets are on tenterhooks. The prospect of a Castillo victory has sparked panic and capital flight among the Peruvian elite. According to Scotiabank, the sol has depreciated further against the dollar than any other currency in the world since the first round of voting in April, when Castillo first emerged. Dollar-sol transactions have jumped by about 20 per cent in the past month.

Free Peru, Castillo’s party, is led by a Marxist advocating nationalisation, higher taxes, a new constitution and a curb on imports in one of the world’s biggest producers of copper, zinc and precious metals. Fujimori, in contrast, largely defends Peru’s economic model.

“If Keiko wins it would be good for the markets, and with copper prices where they are it would be relatively easy to stimulate the economy in what remains of the year,” said Alfredo Thorne, a former economy minister.

“But we still have to wait for all the votes to be counted and I suspect we’ll still have a few ups and downs before we know who’s won.”

Since winning the first round with just 18.9 per cent, Castillo has been rousing people in poor, neglected villages in the Andes with a simple but powerful message: “No more poor people in a rich country.”

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Fujimori’s bid to become Peru’s first female president has been complicated by corruption allegations that she denies. Prosecutors accuse her of being the head of a criminal organisation and say she should be jailed for 30 years.

Many middle-class Peruvians say that, while they dislike and distrust her, they would vote for her to keep Castillo from power. They accuse him and his supporters of being communists and, in some case, terrorists.

“I’ll vote for Keiko because I don’t want my country to become the next Venezuela or Cuba,” said María Alejandra Lozada, a 24-year-old law student who came out to greet Fujimori on the campaign trail in the northern city of Trujillo last week.

Both sides have suggested that the other might steal the election, which has played out against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, Peru revised its death toll upwards from fewer than 70,000 to 180,000, giving it the highest death toll per capita in the world. Many voters were wearing plastic face shields as they went to vote.

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