Peru heads to the polls to elect president in polarised race

Peruvians will make a choice between right-wing populist Keiko Fujimori and left-wing Pedro Castillo.

Polls show the race in a statistical dead heat but with Fujimori, left, who had earlier trailed Castillo, pulling slightly ahead [AFP]

Voting has started in Peru’s presidential runoff as the country faces a polarising choice between right-wing populist Keiko Fujimori and left-wing teachers’ union organiser Pedro Castillo.

Polls in the runoff election opened at 7am (12:00 GMT) in most of the country’s 11,700 voting centres, with official results expected to begin rolling in from 11:30pm (04:30 GMT Monday).

The voting is taking place days after Peru almost tripled its coronavirus death toll following a government review, giving it the world’s worst coronavirus death rate per capita, and amid deep political weariness and frustration among voters.

“We’re fed up with always being governed by the same people, we want Peru to change,” Martha Huaman, 27, a fruit seller in Tacabamba, in the Cajamarca region where Castillo lives, told the AFP news agency.

Polls showed a statistical dead heat heading into the elections, but Fujimori, who had earlier trailed Castillo, had pulled slightly ahead.

Fujimori, 46, the daughter of jailed ex-president Alberto Fujimori, is promising to maintain economic stability and pro-free market policies in the world’s second-largest copper producer, as well as to pardon her father, who was sentenced for human rights violations.

Fujimori herself spent several months in custody on corruption allegations she denies. If she wins, the criminal case against her will be halted while she leads the country.

Translation: “Today, that we have reached here with a lot of effort, I have to pass the post to you. I can’t reach the goal alone. I need you to do it. I only ask that you give me a chance. With your support, we are going to turn this game around. #Now it’s your turn.”

On her way to an election breakfast in Lima, Fujimori told journalists: “Keiko means hope. Let’s all go out and vote.”

Castillo, 51, an elementary school teacher and union leader, has galvanised support from Peru’s rural poor with pledges to nationalise the mining sector, a stance he later sought to take back.

He has promised to alter multinational companies’ tax regimes and wants to rewrite the country’s constitution.

Castillo is from a remote village near the town of Tacabamba, in Peru’s northern Andes, which on Saturday night cheered for him as he made his way back home to vote. He gave brief remarks, even though political campaigning is banned in the last days before an election in Peru.

“I call on Peruvians to be calm, to show the world we can do this,” he said on Sunday.

Pollsters say undecided voters and Peruvians living abroad could tip the balance in the crunch poll. Approximately one million overseas Peruvians are part of the 25-million electoral roll.

But the election comes amid years of political instability in Peru, and many voters had expressed frustration with the choices before them ahead of the first round of the election in April.

Only 0.8 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot at that time, when COVID-19 lockdowns were commonplace.

“The mood is very somber,” Al Jazeera’s Mariana Sanchez reported on Sunday, adding that recent opinion polls ahead of the vote showed Fujimori leading Castillo by less than one percentage point.

“The reason for that probably is because she has had all the mainstream media supporting her campaign – radios, televisions, newspapers – and also because there’s been a very strong campaign where they have portrayed [Castillo] as a president that could impose communism in the country and people are very afraid,” Sanchez said. “So people are voting in fear.”

The country’s pandemic-hit economy – two million people have lost their jobs and nearly a third of the country lives in poverty – also continues to weigh heavily on voters’ minds.

“I don’t even want to vote, neither of them deserve it, but Castillo panics me so I’m going to vote for Fujimori,” Johnny Samaniego, a 51-year-old trucker who lives in Lima, told the AFP news agency.

A poll worker sets up a voting booth ahead of the runoff elections between Castillo and Fujimori [Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters]

The head of Peru’s National Office of Electoral Processes, Piero Corvetto, said that with vaccination programmes now further advanced in areas where Peruvian expatriates predominate – such as the United States, Spain, Argentina and Chile – more people were likely to turn out.

He said he expects overseas Peruvians to account for 1.5 percent of the vote.

A neck-and-neck result could lead to days of uncertainty and tension if it takes time to settle on a winner.

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

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.

If Fujimori wins “it won’t be easy given the mistrust her name and that of her family generates in many sectors,” political scientist Jessica Smith told AFP, while if Castillo triumphs, he will have to “consolidate a parliamentary majority that will allow him to deliver his ambitious programme”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies