© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Peru's presidential candidate Pedro Castillo speaks to supporters at the Free Peru Party headquarters on June 8, 2021 in Lima, Peru. REUTERS / Sebastian Castaneda
By Marcelo Rochabrun and Marco Aquino
LIMA (Reuters) -Pedro Castillo was on the verge of winning Thursday's Peruvian presidential election, with the socialist narrowing around 70,000 votes over conservative rival Keiko Fujimori, who has yet to admit and has accused of fraud despite sparse evidence.
Castillo had about 50.2% of the vote, 0.4 percentage points ahead of 99.3% of the votes cast, with only a small number of contested ballots still under review.
The schoolteacher and political freshman has gained broad grassroots support for pledges to recast the constitution and redistribute mining assets, but has tried in recent days to calm investor nervousness in a more market-friendly tone.
But Fujimori, facing its own renewed legal troubles on Thursday, has not relented and tried to nullify around 500,000 votes that it believes are suspect.
"We will continue to defend the legitimate rights of millions of Peruvians until the last vote," she said on Twitter.
Castillo's Peru Libre party says there is no evidence of suspicious activity. Independent election observers say the vote was neatly conducted.
The National Electoral Jury's (JNE) ethics tribunal, charged with overseeing the legality of the electoral process, said Thursday that it was "irresponsible" to question the results without evidence.
Washington said that electoral authorities should be allowed to investigate allegations of fraud.
"We look forward to working with the duly elected candidate," said a State Department spokesman.
In Latin America, however, many were already celebrating Castillo's victory.
Argentina's President Alfredo Fernandez congratulated Castillo as the first head of state. He said on Twitter that he had contacted the "elected president" and expressed his wish to join forces for the benefit of Latin America.
Peru's current interim government said in a statement that it had tabled a “protest note” to Argentina over the comments, with the country's electoral authority not yet officially announcing the final results.
In Brazil, former left-wing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is widely 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 further step forward in the popular struggle in our beloved Latin America," he said.
Bolivia's former President Evo Morales also congratulated Castillo on his "victory" and called him a "soul brother and comrade in arms".
Castillo's thin lead over Fujimori is greater than the 0.24% 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 interests at stake for her, she could do this this time," said Eileen Gavin, Global Markets and the Americas Principal Analyst for Verisk Risk Advisory (NASDAQ 🙂 Maplecroft.
Fujimori spent over a year in prison pending trial on charges that she accepted illegal campaign contributions when she first ran in 2011. She has denied the allegations, calling them political persecution.
On Thursday, prosecutor Jose Domingo Perez requested that Fujimori's bail be lifted and her pre-trial detention pending trial on the grounds that she had had contact with a witness.
The application will be heard by a judge in the coming days. A Fujimori spokesman did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
"Prosecutors have the right to request their arrest, but it is interpreted by people as an attempt to interfere in the electoral process," said Ernesto de la Jara, a Peruvian human rights lawyer who is critical of Fujimori.
A victory in the presidential election would halt her fall until the end of her term.
Peru, which saw three presidents in one week amid political scandals and protests last year, has been hit by the world's deadliest COVID-19 outbreak in terms of deaths per capita. The world's second largest producer suffered its worst economic slump in three decades.