Far-left schoolteacher, rightwing populist vie for Peru presidency

Lima (AFP) –


Far-left labor unionist Pedro Castillo and rightwing populist Keiko Fujimori will square off in a second round of presidential elections that analysts say threatens to further polarize crisis-weary Peru.

With 96 percent of ballots counted by Tuesday, schoolteacher Castillo led with 19.09 percent while corruption-accused Fujimori -- daughter of jailed ex-president Alberto Fujimori, followed with 13.35 percent.

The pair beat out 16 other candidates in a fragmented first voting round Sunday, and will face each other again for the runoff on June 6.

In a country battered by the coronavirus epidemic, a steep economic downturn and years of political upheaval, no single candidate was able to fire up voters to obtain the 51 percent required for victory in the first round.

The election happened in Peru's worst week of the coronavirus pandemic -- the day after the country reported a record 384 deaths in 24 hours.

As some of the 25 million eligible voters lined up to cast their ballot -- which is mandatory in Peru -- others queued for oxygen refills for ill relatives battling Covid-19.

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

- Choice 'between dengue and Covid-19' -

The scene has been set for a fierce battle of economic ideology between left and right in the second round.

Castillo, whom opinion polls had not even placed in the top five, represents the far-left Free Peru party, and advocates for state intervention in the economy, including through nationalization of assets.

Fujimori, for her part, leads the Popular Force in defending a free-market economy as outlined in Peru's constitution, promulgated under her father's rule in 1993.

Both candidates are socially conservative -- opposed to abortion and gay marriage.

And both will likely inspire a strong anti-vote.

There is deep-seated mistrust of communism in one sector of Peruvian society in light of the long civil war against the Maoist Shining Path group, and strong anti-Fujimorist sentiment in another given the ex-president's poor record on human rights and corruption, and accusations of graft and political manipulation against his heir.

"Both candidates arouse great antipathy in the population," said political analyst Augusto Alvarez Rodrich.

"People have reservations about both, but democracy requires that one of them must be chosen, which puts Peruvians at a crossroads. Opting for one (or the other) seems like a choice between dengue and Covid-19," said Rodrich.

- Rich vs poor -

Castillo, 51, was a virtual unknown until 2017, when he led thousands of teachers in a protracted national strike that resulted in government compromise.

He has made campaign promises to eject "illegal foreigners" who commit crimes, bring back the death penalty, and have the government take control of Peru's energy and mineral resources.

Amid the vote count, he declared of his rivalry with Fujimori: "This is a competition between the rich and the poor... also a struggle between the boss and the pawn, and between the master and the slave."

Fujimori, 45, is taking her third shot at the presidency, but faces charges for allegedly taking money from scandal-tainted Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to fund her presidential bids in 2011 and 2016.

If she wins in June, the charges will be suspended until after her term as Peruvian law which exempts sitting presidents from prosecution.

- Recession and upheaval -

First on the new president's agenda will be dealing with the coronavirus, which has killed more than 55,200 in the country of 33 million people.

The economy will also require urgent attention.

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.

To make matters worse, the uncertain electoral outcome worried the markets and saw the Peruvian sol plunge to a record low 3.8 to the US dollar last month.

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.

The vote count is all but concluded, but the final two candidates will only officially be announced by the National Jury of Elections in early May.

Counting in Sunday's vote for 130 members of Congress will take longer, but is led by Castillo's and Fujimori's parties.