Peru’s leftist presidential candidate Castillo casts vote in hard-fought runoff

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© Reuters. Peru’s presidential candidate Pedro Castillo (C) walks upon his arrival in Tacabamba, Peru, June 5,2021. Picture taken June 5, 2021. REUTERS/Alessandro Cinque

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By Marco Aquino and Marcelo Rochabrun

LIMA/TACABAMBA, Peru (Reuters) -Peruvians began voting to 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 began to open at 7 a.m. (1200 GMT), with long queues building up early at some centres in the capital Lima of people bundled up against the cold of the southern hemisphere late autumn.

Citizens have been invited to vote according to their numbers on their identity cards in a bid to avoid large crowds gathering.

Peru almost tripled its coronavirus death toll last week following a government review, meaning it now has the world’s worst death rate per capita of the pandemic.

Opinion polls show the presidential 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 producer.

Castillo, 51, an elementary school teacher and union leader, has galvanized support from Peru’s rural poor – and concerned investors – with pledges including to alter multinational companies’ tax regimes and rewrite the constitution.

He held prayers and an election breakfast at his adobe home in the remote northern Andes village of Chugur before heading to the nearby town of Tacabamba to vote.

He has 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. On Sunday, however, he said he would respect the result.

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

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

Many Peruvians hold a deep mistrust of politicians following two decades in which five former presidents have been investigated or prosecuted for corruption.

Ruth Rojas, who said she lives in deep poverty with a disabled daughter, said she did not believe either candidate’s 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,” Rojas said.

Pollsters say undecided voters and Peruvians living abroad could tip the balance.

Overseas Peruvians make up almost 4% of the 25 million on the electoral roll. Only 0.8% voted 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 – the United States, Spain, Argentina and Chile – turnout would likely be closer to 1.5%.