Peru's outgoing president seeks 'calm' as vote result drags

Peru’s caretaker leader Francisco Sagasti moved Friday to “maintain calm in difficult times,” speaking to actors on both sides of a polarized presidential campaign still to yield a result five days after elections.

Tensions have been rising as officials undertake a review of tens of thousands of ballots disputed by rightwing candidate Keiko Fujimori, who risks imminent trial on corruption charges if she loses to leftist rival Pedro Castillo, who has already cast himself as the victor.

The review is expected to take several more days, and supporters of Castillo and Fujimori have rallied to call for their candidate to be anointed president.

Even without a final tally, leftist Latin American leaders have started congratulating Castillo.

“The task of a head of State is to keep the country calm in difficult times. In that effort I got in touch with several people who… have contact with both candidates,” Sagasti tweeted early Friday.

“My request was the same for both: lower the tension and wait for the official results.”

Sagasti said the country was experiencing a “polarized, complex and difficult” time “plagued by lies and distortions” and vowed to do his best for Peru until the end of his caretaker term.

Peruvians voted on Sunday for their fifth president in three years after a series of crises and corruption scandals saw three different leaders in office in a single week last November, the last one being Sagasti.

– Claims of ‘victory’ –

On the last count of the run-off vote, rural school teacher and trade unionist Castillo led with 50.1 percent of the ballots compared to Fujimori’s 49.8 percent.

Castillo was ahead by some 60,000 votes, but Fujimori has claimed fraud and asked Peru’s National Electoral Tribunal (JNE) to annul the results from more than 800 polling stations, the equivalent of 200,000 votes.

If it rules in her favor, Fujimori could be declared the winner and so delay a corruption trial until the end of her term, under Peruvian law.

Prosecutors have said they would seek a 30-year jail term for Fujimori on charges of taking money from scandal-tainted Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to fund failed presidential bids in 2011 and 2016.

The 46-year-old denies the allegations, and has already spent 16 months in pre-trial detention.

On Thursday, a prosecutor sought preventive custody for Fujimori, claiming she had violated her parole conditions by meeting with a witness in the case. A decision is pending.

Meanwhile, Castillo said Wednesday that party observers considered his triumph a done deal as he thanked “embassies and governments from Latin America and other countries” for messages of congratulations on his “victory.”

– Congratulations were an ‘error’ –

Castillo has received congratulations from two former presidents of Brazil — Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — the ex-president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, and former Bolivian leader Evo Morales.

Among sitting leaders, he received felicitations from Nicaragua’s first lady and vice president Rosario Murillo, Bolivian leader Luis Arce and Argentina’s Alberto Fernandez.

Fernandez’s message, the first from a leader currently in office, drew ire from the foreign ministry in Lima, which said it was an “error” to pronounce before the official result is announced.

Peruvian authorities and election observers have dismissed any possibility of vote-counting fraud.

As in Peru’s three previous presidential elections, the tail-end of vote counting has been slow due to delays in the arrival of ballots in Lima from rural and jungle areas, and from abroad — where one million of the country’s 25 million eligible voters live.

Whoever wins will lead a nation battered by recession and the world’s highest coronavirus death rate, with more than 187,000 deaths among its 33 million population.

Two million Peruvians lost their jobs during the pandemic and nearly a third now live in poverty, official figures show.

Peruvians will also be hoping for stability, with seven of their last 10 leaders either convicted or under investigation for graft.

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