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Peru Pedro Castillo draws closer to presidential victory

Pedro Castillo maintained a slim lead over rival Keiko Fujimori in the Peruvian presidential election on Thursday, with nearly all votes counted, but with some of the contested votes yet to be considered by election officials.

Castillo, an elementary school teacher and new to politics who won broad popular support, pledges to rewrite the constitution and redistribute the wealth, won 50.2% of the vote, maintaining a 0.4 percentage point lead on Fujimori on the right, or 71,254 votes.

Some 300,000 disputed votes are examined by an electoral jury, a process that will take several days and could delay the announcement of who will take the presidency in late July.

Analysts said that is unlikely to be enough to change the outcome.

Fujimori has yet to concede, doubling down on unfounded fraud allegations.

On Wednesday evening, Fujimori, the daughter of polarizing former president Alberto Fujimori, told reporters that she would seek the quashing of around 500,000 votes she considers suspicious, without providing substantial evidence. She wondered about the likelihood of voting tables with up to 300 ballots in which she did not get any votes.

Fujimori said those votes should be considered, adding that she was not accusing election officials of being complicit in wrongdoing.

The Ethics Tribunal of the National Election Jury (JNE), the body responsible for monitoring the legality of the electoral process, said in a statement on Twitter Thursday morning that casting doubt on the results without evidence was “irresponsible”.

Castillo’s Free Peru Party says there is no evidence of suspicious activity. Independent election observers say the vote went smoothly.

Washington said election officials should be allowed to investigate any allegations of fraud.

“We look forward to working with the duly elected candidate,” said a spokesperson for the US State Department.

In Latin America, however, many were already celebrating Castillo’s victory.

Argentine President Alfredo Fernandez was the first world leader to congratulate Castillo, saying on Twitter that he had contacted the “president-elect” and expressed a wish to join forces for the benefit of Latin America.

In Brazil, former left-wing president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is expected to challenge far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in next year’s elections, said Castillo had dealt a blow to conservatism in the region.

“The result of the Peruvian polls is symbolic and represents a new step forward in the popular struggle in our dear Latin America,” he said.

Legal woes

Castillo’s 0.4% lead over Fujimori, while slim, is larger than the 0.24% by which Fujimori lost to Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in the 2016 presidential election.

“Then Fujimori didn’t ask for a recount, but given the political and legal issues for her, she could do it this time around,” said Eileen Gavin, senior analyst at Global Markets and the Americas for the firm of Verisk Maplecroft risk consulting.

Fujimori, who has been jailed for over a year awaiting trial on charges of accepting illegal campaign contributions when she first ran for president in 2011, is still embroiled in legal issues. She denied the allegations and called them political persecution.

On Thursday, prosecutor Jose Domingo Perez requested that Fujimori’s bail be revoked and that she be returned to custody pending trial, arguing that she had been in contact with a witness.

The request will be heard by a judge in the coming days. A Fujimori spokesperson did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

“Prosecutors have the right to ask for his imprisonment, but this will be interpreted by people as an attempt to interfere in the electoral process,” said Ernesto de la Jara, a Peruvian human rights lawyer who criticizes Fujimori.

A victory in the presidential election would stop his case until the end of his term.

Peru, which saw three presidents in a week last year amid political scandals and protests, has been hit by the world’s deadliest COVID-19 outbreak in terms of per capita deaths. The world’s second-largest copper producer recorded its worst economic plunge in three decades last year.

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