Fujimori, Castillo neck and neck after Peru presidential polls close

Right-wing populist Keiko Fujimori and radical leftist Pedro Castillo were locked in a “statistical draw” in an exit poll as voting closed in Peru’s presidential election on Sunday.

Fujimori, the daughter of disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori, had 50.3 percent of the vote according to reputable pollsters Ipsos, with Castillo on 49.7 percent just after polls closed at 7:00 pm (0000 GMT).

Ipsos Peru director Alfredo Torres told America television station that the results were so close that “it’s not possible to declare a winner at this time.”

Castillo had topped the first round of voting in April, when the pair both caused a surprise by reaching the second round, and he was also narrowly ahead in the latest opinion polls before Sunday’s vote.

“We have to stay calm, we have to be prudent. I’m asking for common sense, what we’ve heard is not official,” said Castillo, 51, speaking to supporters at his Free Peru party headquarters in Tacabamba, in the Cajamarca region.

The new leader will need to tackle a country in crisis, suffering from recession and with the worst coronavirus fatality rate in the world after recording over 184,000 deaths among its 33 million population.

Peruvians will also look to the winner to end years of political turbulence after four presidents in the last three years, and with seven of the last 10 of the country’s leaders either having been convicted of or investigated for corruption.

First official results are expected after 11:00 pm on Sunday (0400 GMT Monday).

At the height of the political storm in November last year, Peru had three different presidents in just five days.

Two million Peruvians have lost their jobs during the pandemic and nearly a third of the country now live in poverty, according to official figures.

– Polar opposites –

For voters, this was a choice between polar opposites.

Fujimori, 46, represents the neoliberal economic model of tax cuts and boosting private activity to generate jobs.

Speaking to journalists and supporters on Sunday morning, she praised the “grandfathers and grandmothers” who went out to vote despite the pandemic. “They thought about their children and grandchildren,” she added.

She didn’t speak when the exit poll was announced, but was seen hugging family members and campaign staff on the state TV Peru.

Fujimori’s bastion is the capital Lima, while Castillo’s bulwark is the rural deep interior.

Trade unionist schoolteacher Castillo has pledged to nationalize vital industries, raise taxes, eliminate tax exemptions and increase state regulation.

He voted in Tacabamba following a breakfast with his family, when he vowed to respect the results.

– ‘It won’t be easy’ –

Favored by the business sector and middle classes, Fujimori tried to portray Castillo as a communist threat, warning that Peru would become a new Venezuela or North Korea should he win.

Castillo pointed to the Fujimori family’s history of corruption scandals. Keiko Fujimori is under investigation over campaign funding in her 2011 and 2016 presidential bids and has already spent 16 months in pre-trial detention.

Her father is serving a 25-year sentence for crimes against humanity and corruption.

“If Keiko is eventually elected, you can’t forget that this 50 percent is not her real support but rather a reaction from an electorate that is afraid of what her opponent represents,” political scientist Jessica Smith told AFP.

Whoever wins will have a hard time governing as Congress is fragmented. Castillo’s Free Peru is the largest single party, just ahead of Fujimori’s Popular Force, but without a majority.

“It won’t be easy (for Fujimori) given the mistrust her name and that of her family generates in many sectors. She’ll have to quickly calm the markets and generate ways to reactivate them,” added Smith.

If Castillo triumphs, he’ll have to “consolidate a parliamentary majority that will allow him to deliver his ambitious program.”

But in either case “it will take time to calm the waters because there’s fierce polarization and an atmosphere of social conflict,” analyst Luis Pasaraindico told AFP.

Some 160,000 police and soldiers were deployed to guarantee peace on election day as 25 million people were due to vote, plus another one million from the Peruvian diaspora living in 75 countries around the world.

The new president will take office on July 28, replacing centrist interim leader Francisco Sagasti.

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