Peru votes as Covid-19 body count mounts

Lima (AFP) –


Peruvians go to the polls Sunday, in the midst of a deadly pandemic surge, to choose a new president to confront the country's multiple challenges from among 18 candidates with no clear favorite.

With aspirants from the left to the right of the political spectrum vying for the top post in a country where personality tends to count for more than ideology, not one enjoys more than 10 percent of polled support.

At a time the country is in dire need of stability -- confronting the health crisis, economic distress and five years of political upheaval -- it appears likely the first election round will be inconclusive.

If so, Peruvians will have to wait until June 6 for a runoff round in which the top two candidates will jostle for victory.

Just over 25 million Peruvians are expected to turn out to vote just days after the country of 33 million people reported a daily record of 314 coronavirus deaths Wednesday.

Voting is mandatory.

Unlike its neighbor Chile, which was also due to hold elections Sunday but delayed them over the pandemic, Peru's government has decided to press ahead.

Four of the presidential candidates have contracted the virus, most recently former football goalkeeper George Forsyth, forcing him to cut short his last week of campaigning.

In spite of a fast-rising infection rate, candidates have held rallies with hundreds of people in recent weeks.

"Practically all are carrying out high-risk transmission activities," the head of the Peru Medical College doctors' association, Augusto Tarazona, told AFP.

More than 1.6 million people have tested positive for the coronavirus in Peru to date, and nearly 54,000 have died.

- 'Most fragmented election' -

With 10 percent of support according to an Ipsos poll last Sunday, center-right candidate Yonhy Lescano is in the lead, but only narrowly.

The 62-year-old lawyer represents the Accion Popular (Popular Action), the oldest remaining party in Peru which has not won a presidential election in four decades.

The Ipsos poll revealed a mere four percentage-point difference between Lescano and the seventh-placed candidate.

In joint second and third place with nine percent each are leftist anthropologist Veronika Mendoza and conservative economist Hernando de Soto.

Forsyth is next in line, tied with corruption-accused Keiko Fujimori -- daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori -- at eight percent.

This will be "the most fragmented election in the history" of the country, said Ipsos Peru chief Alfredo Torres.

Another poll, by the Institute of Peruvian Studies, placed Fujimori and De Soto at a joint first place with 9.8 percent support, followed by the ultra-conservative celibate Catholic Rafael Lopez Aliaga with 8.4 percent, Lescano with 8.2 percent, and Mendoza with 7.3 percent.

Almost a third of voters say they do not know who to cast their ballot for.

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

- Economic woes -

Peru has been in recession since the second quarter of last year, after a national lockdown of more than 100 days shuttered many businesses and crippled the tourism sector it relies so heavily on.

Having grown above the Latin American average for years, Peru's economy contracted more than 11 percent in 2020 -- its worst performance in three decades.

Four million Peruvians lost their jobs and another five million dropped into poverty, a condition which now affects a third of the population.

The candidates' proposals for rescuing the economy include a promise from Lescano to rein in "unbridled" capitalism and a proposal by Mendoza that the government take control of natural resources such as gas.

This will be Mendoza's second shot at the presidency, having come third in the 2016 race.

Also vying to become Peru's first woman president is Fujimori, who is trying for a third time but is under investigation for allegedly having accepted illicit funding from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to fund her 2011 and 2016 campaigns.

A sprawling investigation into the Odebrecht bribery scandal has implicated four former Peruvian presidents, one of whom has since died by suicide.

- Fifth in three years -

The new president will be the fifth to hold the position in three years.

He or she will replace caretaker President Francisco Sagasti, named after three presidents fell within days of each other in November 2020 amid protests that left two dead and hundreds injured.

The first election results will be known around midnight on Sunday.

Peruvians will also vote for 130 members of the unicameral parliament.