Peru’s presidential election was on a knife edge on Sunday night with early unofficial counts showing the socialist and conservative candidates separated by a razor-thin margin.
A quick count of votes with a 1 percent error margin put leftist presidential candidate Pedro Castillo, an elementary school teacher and novice politician, ahead by 0.4 of a percentage point.
A previous exit poll, with a higher 3 percent error margin put Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of jailed ex-President Alberto Fujimori, up by 0.6 of a percentage point.
The new quick-count results triggered immediate celebrations of “we won!” in Tacabamba, the Andean town closest to the impoverished village where Castillo was born and raised, which is also where he is waiting for the results.
The tight race could lead to days of uncertainty as official counts trickle in, and may trigger social unrest if disillusioned supporters of either candidate question the results.
Castillo had earlier called his supporters out onto the streets after the exit poll gave a slender lead to his rival Fujimori.
“I ask our people to defend every vote,” Castillo wrote on Twitter. “I call on Peruvian people from all corners of the country to go to the streets in peace to be vigilant in the defense of democracy.”
Speaking before the quick count via megaphone from a balcony to crowds in Tacabamba, Castillo appealed for calm.
“We must be prudent, the people are wise,” said the 51-year-old schoolteacher who has vowed to redistribute wealth and rewrite the constitution. “What we have heard is not official.”
Fujimori said she was reserving judgement until the official results, and also appealed for “prudence, calm and peace from both groups, those who voted and did not vote for us”.
Millions voted on Sunday to pick between two candidates espousing clashing ideologies in a runoff election that has deeply divided voters along class and geographical lines.
Opinion polls up to the day of the election showed a statistical dead heat, with Fujimori, who had earlier trailed Castillo, pulling slightly ahead at the end of campaigning.
Both have pledged vastly different remedies for rescuing Peru from the economic doldrums brought on by the COVID-19 crisis. The Andean country has the worst coronavirus death rate in the world, recording more than 184,000 deaths among its 33 million population. Two million Peruvians have also lost their jobs during the pandemic and nearly a third of the country now lives in poverty, according to official figures
Fujimori, 46, has pledged to follow the free-market model and maintain economic stability, while Castillo, 51, has promised to redraft the country’s constitution to strengthen the role of the state, take a larger portion of profits from mining firms and nationalise key industries – Peru is the world’s second-biggest producer of copper.
In Lima, Al Jazeera’s Mariana Sanchez said the initial exit poll result had triggered a protest by Castillo’s supporters, who gathered near the National Office of the Electoral Process.
A local television reporter was beaten at the site, she said.
“Everyone is on alert. Catsillo’s and Fujimori’s sides are vigilant on what is happening with the vote counting. It is a very tight race and people are very anxious here.”
Earlier on Sunday, voting in the Lima district of Surco, Fujimori noted that a handful of allegations of doctored voting papers discovered in the capital and the country’s interior.
“We know that there have been incidents today. We hope that the electoral bodies will take action on the matter and sanctions will be issued accordingly,” she said. “I also expect our party officials to be on their guard.”
She praised the “grannies and grandpas” turning out to vote against a backdrop of a second wave of COVID-19 hitting the country and a slow start to the vaccination campaign.
Castillo had voted in his rural heartland of the northern Peruvian Andes, accompanied by a crowd of supporters chanting: “Yes we can!”
He previously warned against fraud in the election and said he would “be the first to summon the people” if he saw evidence of foul play. But he told crowds on Sunday he would respect the result, and hoped Peruvians would unify behind the successful candidate.
“If we don’t unite, we can’t move the country forward,” Castillo said.
‘Atmosphere of social conflict’
In Lima, voters made their way to polling stations by bike, roller skates and on foot to avoid long traffic jams that built up as the day progressed.
Among those casting his vote in Lima was Luis Pizango, who said that for him, “transparency” was key to a successful election.
“May Peru win for the good of all Peruvians,” he said.
In polls, urban and higher-income citizens have indicated a preference for Fujimori, while the rural poor largely support Castillo.
Whoever wins will have a hard time governing, however, as Peru’s 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,” political scientist Jessica Smith told the AFP news agency, referring to a 25-year sentence handed to Fujimori for crimes against humanity and corruption.
If Castillo triumphs, he’ll have to “consolidate a parliamentary majority that will allow him to deliver his ambitious programme,” said Smith.
In either case, analyst Luis Pasarindico, said it would “take time to calm the waters because there’s fierce polarisation and an atmosphere of social conflict”.