Rdical leftist inches into lead as Peru counts presidential votes

A radical left-wing professor took a surprise lead in Peru’s wide open presidential election with just over half of the votes counted on Monday, but remained short of the amount needed to win outright as a run-off loomed.

Academic Pedro Castillo was out front with 16.3 percent of the vote after 52 percent of ballots had been tallied, well under the 51 percent needed to clinch victory.

He was trailed by conservative economist Hernando de Soto, on 13.5 percent, setting the two up for a run-off on June 6 — although two other candidates remain hot on their heels, the ONPE electoral office said.

Sunday’s election came the day after Peru reported a record 384 fatalities from Covid-19 in the previous 24 hours.

It had been the crisis-weary South American country’s deadliest week yet during the coronavirus pandemic, and as some Peruvians lined up to vote others queued for oxygen refills for ill relatives battling Covid-19.

Some 25 million people were eligible to vote — which is mandatory.

Just behind De Soto, conservative businessman Rafael Lopez Aliaga and controversial right-wing populist former two-time presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of disgraced and jailed ex-president Alberto Fujimori, were level on 12.9 percent in results published at 6:15 am (1115 GMT.)

“Today the Peruvian people have just removed the blindfold,” said Castillo, the unexpected leader from a rammed field of 18 candidates.

– ‘We are afraid’ –

“It’s clear that the gap is tight,” said 79-year-old De Soto.

Nearly 15 percent of votes had been ruled blank or invalid in a country that has had four presidents since 2018.

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.

“We are afraid of getting infected, because this pandemic is terrible, but at the same time I have to vote,” Nancy Retamozo, 58, told AFP while queueing at a school in a Lima suburb.

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.

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.

– Uncertainty –

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

Center-right Yonhy Lescano, leftist anthropologist Veronika Mendoza, and former football goalkeeper George Forsyth, who had also contracted Covid-19, remained in the running for a top two finish following early results.

Counting all the votes will take a while still, and the official announcement on the final two candidates may only come in early May, Peru’s National Jury of Elections said.

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.

The country has also been convulsed by political upheaval driven by claims of corruption at the highest echelons.

Whoever wins 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.

Source: Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS)