LIMA/TACABAMBA, Peru (Reuters) – Peruvians will pick a president on Sunday in an election that has bitterly divided them by class and geography, with urban and higher-income citizens preferring right-wing Keiko Fujimori while the rural poor support leftist political novice Pedro Castillo.
Polls in the runoff election are to open at 7 a.m. (1200 GMT) in most of the country’s 11,700 voting centres, with official results starting to arrive from 11:30 p.m. (0430 GMT on Monday).
The voting is happening days after Peru almost tripled its coronavirus death toll following a government review. Peru now has the world’s worst coronavirus death rate per capita.
Polls show the race in a statistical dead heat but with Fujimori, who had earlier trailed Castillo, pulling 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.
Castillo, 51, an elementary school teacher and union leader, has galvanized support from Peru’s rural poor – and scared investors – with pledges to nationalize the mining sector, a stance he later sought to take back. He has vowed to alter multinational companies’ tax regimes and wants to rewrite the country’s constitution.
He is from a remote village near the town of Tacabamba, in Peru’s northern Andes, which on Saturday night cheered him as he made his way back home to vote. Castillo gave brief remarks, even though political campaigning is banned in the last days before an election in Peru.
The city government installed a stage in the main square, which was filled with supporters and music. The rest of the city has been plastered with pro-Castillo banners, without a single pro-Fujimori sign to be seen.
‘THEY PROMISE EVERYTHING’
Many Peruvians hold a deep mistrust of politicians following two decades in which five former presidents have been investigated or prosecuted for corruption.
Last November, the country cycled through three presidents in just a few days, a political crisis that sparked fierce protests and left several people dead.
Ruth Rojas, a Peruvian mother with a disabled daughter who said she lived in deep poverty, said she believed neither of the candidates’ vows.
“They promise everything until they get into government but then they forget about the poor, they just think of themselves and their own people,” she told Reuters.
Pollsters say undecided voters and Peruvians living abroad could tip the balance in the crunch poll.
Overseas Peruvians make up around one million, almost 4%, of the 25 million-strong electoral roll. Normally few of them vote – only 0.8% in the first round of the election in April, when COVID-19 lockdowns were commonplace.
However, the head of Peru’s National Office of Electoral Processes, Piero Corvetto, said that with vaccination programs 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% 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.
Fujimori, who lost the 2016 election by just 40,000 votes, has said it was a mistake for her not to ask for a recount.
Castillo has said that if something untoward were to happen, he will “be the first to summon the people,” although on Saturday night, he told the crowd he would respect the electoral results.
(Reporting by Marco Aquino in Lima and Marcelo Rochabrun in Tacabamba; Additional reporting by Reuters TV; Editing by William Mallard)