Lima (AFP) -
Right-wing populist Keiko Fujimori held a narrow lead over radical leftist Pedro Castillo following a partial vote count in Peru's presidential election on Sunday.
With 52.9 percent of the vote counted after 42 percent of polling stations were tallied, Fujimori edged ahead in a seesaw battle for the presidency after Ipsos pollsters declared a 'statistical draw' following an earlier exit poll and quick count.
Peru's new leader will need to tackle a country in crisis, suffering from recession and with the worst coronavirus fatality rate in the world after recording over 184,000 deaths among its 33 million population.
Peruvians will also look to the winner to end years of political turbulence after four presidents in the last three years, and with seven of the last 10 of the country's leaders either having been convicted of or investigated for corruption.
Piero Corvetto, head of Peru's top electoral body (ONPE) warned that many polling stations from rural areas -- Castillo's stronghold -- had yet to be tallied.
'They haven't counted our votes yet,' Castillo told supporters in Tacabamba, in the northern Cajamarca region where he lives.
An exit poll by Ipsos after voting ended at 7:00 pm (0000 GMT) showed Fujimori just ahead with 50.3 percent, sparking protests from Castillo supporters outside the ONPE offices in the capital Lima.
But three hours later the pollsters released a quick count that showed Castillo in front with 50.2 percent, bringing scenes of joy and celebrations to the northern Cajamarca region.
Castillo, 51, had earlier urged his supporters to 'stay calm.'
'Seeing how small the gap is, it is essential to maintain prudence and I say that for all Peruvians,' added Fujimori, who had earlier been seen hugging family and campaign staff following the exit poll.
Both candidates promised to respect the results when voting earlier in the day.
- 'Too tight' -
'We're not going to know (the winner) until the last vote' is counted, political scientist Jessica Smith told AFP.
'It's still very unsure, the difference is too tight and we have to wait for the official result.'
Castillo, 51, had topped the first round of voting in April, when the pair both caused a surprise by reaching the second round, and he was also narrowly ahead in the latest opinion polls before Sunday's vote.
At the height of the political storm in November last year, Peru had three different presidents in just five days.
Two million Peruvians have lost their jobs during the pandemic and nearly a third of the country now live in poverty, according to official figures.
For voters, this was a choice between polar opposites.
Fujimori, 46, represents the neoliberal economic model of tax cuts and boosting private activity to generate jobs.
Fujimori's bastion is the capital Lima, while Castillo's bulwark is the rural deep interior.
Trade unionist schoolteacher Castillo has pledged to nationalize vital industries, raise taxes, eliminate tax exemptions and increase state regulation.
He voted in Tacabamba following a breakfast with his family.
Favored by the business sector and middle classes, Fujimori tried to portray Castillo as a communist threat, warning that Peru would become a new Venezuela or North Korea should he win.
Castillo pointed to the Fujimori family's history of corruption scandals. Keiko Fujimori is under investigation over campaign funding in her 2011 and 2016 presidential bids and has already spent 16 months in pre-trial detention.
Her father is serving a 25-year sentence for crimes against humanity and corruption.
- 'It won't be easy' -
'If Keiko is eventually elected, you can't forget that this 50 percent is not her real support but rather a reaction from an electorate that is afraid of what her opponent represents,' Smith told AFP.
Whoever wins will have a hard time governing as 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,' added Smith.
If Castillo triumphs, he'll have to 'consolidate a parliamentary majority that will allow him to deliver his ambitious program.'
But in either case 'it will take time to calm the waters because there's fierce polarization and an atmosphere of social conflict,' analyst Luis Pasaraindico told AFP.
Some 160,000 police and soldiers were deployed to guarantee peace on election day as 25 million people were due to vote, plus another one million from the Peruvian diaspora living in 75 countries around the world.
The new president will take office on July 28, replacing centrist interim leader Francisco Sagasti.