2 polarizing populists vie in Peru's presidential runoff

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A child stands behind a barricade as supporters of Presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori watch her arrive to cast her vote in Lima, Peru, Sunday, June 6, 2021. Peruvians head to the polls in a presidential run-off election to choose between Fujimori, the daughter of jailed ex-President Alberto Fujimori, and political novice Pedro Castillo. (AP Photo/Guadalupe Pardo)

LIMA – The daughter of an imprisoned former president and a rural teacher-turned-political novice vied for Peru’s presidency Sunday in a tight presidential runoff held as the coronavirus pandemic continues to batter the Andean country.

The polarizing populist candidates, leftist Pedro Castillo and conservative Keiko Fujimori, making her third run for the presidency, promised coronavirus vaccines for all and other strategies to alleviate the health emergency that has killed more than 180,000 people in Peru and pushed millions into poverty. The election follows a statistical revision from Peru’s government that more than doubled the death toll previously acknowledged by officials.

Voters across Peru, where voting is mandatory, headed to the polls throughout Sunday under a set schedule meant to minimize long lines. No disturbances were reported at voting sites, which even opened in San Miguel del Ene, a remote village in a cocaine-producing area where 16 people were massacred two weeks ago.

Election officials were expected to release initial results late Sunday. Pre-election polls indicated the candidates were virtually tied heading into the runoff. In the first round of voting, featuring 18 candidates, neither received more than 20% support and both were strongly opposed by sectors of Peruvian society.

“Well, the truth is that I believe that Peruvians are used to this type of decision — of being left with two options that leave much to be desired, but what do we do?” one voter, Paul Perez, said at a school in the capital of Lima where he was voting. “We are in a social, cultural situation that limits us to anticipating all of this.”

The pandemic not only has collapsed Peru’s medical and cemetery infrastructure, left millions unemployed and highlighted longstanding inequalities in the country, it has also deepened people’s mistrust of government as it mismanaged the COVID-19 response and a secret vaccination drive for the well-connected erupted into a national scandal.

Amid protests and corruption allegations, the South American country cycled through three presidents in November. Now, analysts warn this election could be another tipping point for people’s simmering frustrations and bring more political instability.

“I think in both situations the risk of social unrest is high. It’s a time bomb,” said Claudia Navas, an analyst with the global firm Control Risks. “I think if Castillo wins, people who support Fujimori or support the continuation to some extent of the economic model may protest.”