By Marco Aquino and Marcelo Rochabrun
LIMA/TACABAMBA, Peru (Reuters) -Socialist presidential candidate Pedro Castillo said Peruvians are a “people of hope” on Sunday, with the country on edge as unofficial vote counts showed him and his conservative election rival separated by the thinnest of margins.
A quick count of votes cast in Sunday’s election, with a 1% error margin by Ipsos Peru, put Castillo, an elementary school teacher and novice politician, ahead by 0.4 of a percentage point.
A previous Ipsos exit poll, with a 3% error margin, put his rival in the run-off election, Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of jailed ex-President Alberto Fujimori, up by 0.6 of a percentage point.
By 1 a.m. (0600 GMT), the ONPE electoral agency had published partial official results with 61% of votes counted that put Fujimori first with 52.4% of votes and Castillo second with 47.5%. Authorities however cautioned that this count was predominantly urban, where the conservative candidate has an advantage.
“We need to have faith in the people,” Castillo said. “Our votes still remain to be counted, the votes of the provinces.”
The quick-count results triggered celebrations and cries of “we won” from Castillo’s supporters in Tacabamba, the Andean town closest to the impoverished village where he was born and raised, which is also where he is waiting for the results.
Hundreds gathered in Tacabamba’s main square before midnight for a concert with a pro-Castillo presenter telling the crowd: “yes we can”. The concert appeared to violate an 11 p.m. curfew linked to the coronavirus, which has hit Peru particularly hard.
A tight race could lead to days of uncertainty as counts trickle in, and could trigger unrest if disillusioned supporters of either candidate question the results.
Castillo had earlier called his supporters onto the streets after an exit poll gave a slender lead to Fujimori. But he has not made any official comment since the quick count put him as the likely winner, and neither has Fujimori.
“I ask our people to defend every vote,” Castillo wrote on Twitter when the early forecast suggested he would lose. “I call on Peruvian people from all corners of the country to go to the streets in peace to be vigilant in the defence 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. She also appealed for “prudence, calm and peace from both groups, those who voted and did not vote for us.”
Reuters witnesses reported a small crowd of people gathering outside the headquarters of Castillo’s Peru Libre party in the capital, Lima.
Opinion polls up to election day had indicated a statistical dead heat, with Fujimori, who had earlier trailed Castillo, pulling slightly ahead at the end of campaigning.
Polls showed urban and higher-income citizens prefer Fujimori, while the rural poor largely support Castillo.
Both candidates have pledged vastly different remedies for rescuing Peru from the economic doldrums brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, which has seen it lead the world in per capital deaths.
Fujimori, a 46-year-old who has tilted at the presidency twice before, has pledged to follow the free-market model and maintain economic stability in the world’s second-largest copper producer.
Castillo, the son of peasant farmers, has promised to redraft the constitution to strengthen the role of the state, take a larger portion of profits from mining firms and nationalize key industries.
Voting in the Lima district of Surco on Sunday afternoon, Fujimori noted 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.”
In Lima, voters made their way to polling stations by bike, roller skates and on foot to traffic jams that built up as the day progressed.
Among those casting their vote in Lima was Luis Pizango, who said that for him, “transparency” was key.
“May Peru win for the good of all Peruvians,” he said.