Radical leftist inches into lead as Peru counts presidential votes

Lima (AFP) –


A far-left union leader and teacher has taken a surprise, though slim, lead in Peru's presidential election, and will face one of three right-wing rivals in a runoff in June, incomplete results showed Monday.

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 over two-thirds of ballots counted by lunchtime Monday, leftist Pedro Castillo was in the lead with 17.49 percent -- much higher than predicted by opinion polls which had not even placed him in the top five.

Three right-wing candidates were still in close contention for the second spot to challenge Castillo in the June 6 runoff, results released by the ONPE electoral office showed.

They were corruption-accused populist Keiko Fujimori, who had unsuccessfully contested the presidency twice before, economist Hernando de Soto, and celibate staunch Catholic Rafael Lopez Aliaga -- with less than two percentage points between the three of them.

"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.

"It's clear that the gap is tight," added De Soto, 79.

- 'Most fragmented' election -

The election, with some 25 million eligible voters and 18 candidates, was held one day after Peru reported a record 384 fatalities 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 ahead of what Ipsos Peru chief Alfredo Torres said was the country's "most fragmented election" ever.

Many said they turned out, despite fear of infection, merely to avoid the fine of 88 soles (about $24) for not voting.

Peruvian authorities reported daily fatality records three times last week, bringing the overall toll to more than 54,600 in the country of 33 million people.

More than 11,200 new daily cases were reported, adding to another 1.6 million to date.

On Sunday evening, the authorities announced the latest daily death toll of 234.

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

- Uncertain outcome -

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

Thousands of polling stations were open for hours longer than usual as authorities sought to prevent voters amassing.

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

The uncertain outcome had the markets worried, and the Peruvian sol plunged to a record low 3.8 to the US dollar last month, adding to the future president's full in-tray.

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 around noon on Monday and the dollar rose slightly to 3.64 soles.

"With Castillo we have an anti-establishment left, socially conservative and anti-free market," political scientist Carlos Melendez told AFP, anticipating a "complicated" second round.

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.