While Peruvians voted Sunday for their next president, the race is so close it may be days before the results are known. But as the nation awaits results, the atmosphere remains tense.
It's not clear yet if there will be a run-off round, or whether President Alberto Fujimori will win a controversial and unprecedented third five-year term in office.
Mr. Fujimori was expected to get 48 percent of the vote compared with 41 percent for challenger Alejandro Toledo, according to exit polling by Transparencia, a respected local monitoring group that the Carter Center in Atlanta termed a reliable source. The polling had a margin of error of less than 1 percentage point.
If none of the candidates secures an absolute majority, Fujimori and Toledo will have to take part in a run-off poll in May or the beginning of June.
Concerns about voting fraud, analysts say, could trigger widespread social discontent and a strong international reaction should Fujimori be declared the outright winner. Allegations of limited vote-rigging and electioneering fraud have already been reported by international monitors. Some reports said that on a few ballots, Mr. Toledo's name did not appear.
On the streets of Lima yesterday, 4,000 protesters carrying signs of "down with dictatorship" lobbed rocks and smoking tear-gas canisters onto balconies of Fujimori's presidential palace. "They are dressing up the results without listening to the will of the people," Toledo told the crowd. "I want them to know if they attempt to twist the will of the people that I will be the first to go to the streets, at the front of the line, to defend the rights of the nation."
"If Fujimori wins in a first round it could mean that the government would not be recognized, opening a period of instability and crisis with people taking to the streets and pressure from outside the country," says Lima-based political analyst Santiago Pedraglio.
"The possibility of fraud does not exist," Fujimori said on Sunday.
Just last Friday, the US Senate voted unanimously to approve a resolution warning that if Peru's "elections are not deemed by the international community to have been free and fair, the United States will review and modify as appropriate its political, economic, and military relations with Peru...."
The widespread climate of mistrustin Peru, analysts say, is the fruit of numerous irregularities in the pre-electoral process, which was the object of harsh local and international criticism charging the government with manipulating the process to tilt the playing field to Fujimori's benefit.
Polls taken before election day indicated that more than half of those surveyed believed there would be fraud on election day.
"I think there could be fraud," says skeptical voter Maria Tafur after casting her vote in Lima. "It hasn't been a clean, fair process so far, I don't think it will be clean and fair today."
Toledo, a former shoeshine boy who eventually became a World Bank economist, sky-rocketed to popularity from a virtual unknown. He campaigned on an agenda of creating jobs, and capitalized on the two-year recession that dragged the economy.
According to Transparencia there was an "immense volume" of irregularities in voting, including the detection of ballots from which Toledo's party had been cut off, and irregular and excessive participation of armed forces in the voting centers. Transparencia and the Organization of American State's election observer mission commented that there is no way to audit or monitor the yet to be released official computerized vote count by the national election process office.
Transparencia's quick count results differed significantly from exit-poll results released earlier Sunday, which projected Toledo with 45.2 percent and Fujimori 43.6 percent. This discrepancy has fostered suspicions that other kinds of fraud may have already taken place.
"There has never been such a great discrepancy between the exit-polls and subsequent data," comments political analyst Fernando Rospigliosi. "The only explication I can find is that the votes were tampered with at the booths."
The national electoral process office may not release complete official results at least until Tuesday when eyes around the world will be trained on Peru, in an electoral process that many say transcends borders.
"This electoral process is larger than Peru," the OAS's electoral mission leader Eduardo Stein said during the pre-electoral process. "Like other Andean countries in the region, Peru is a living laboratory for the evolution of democracy, where new elements are emerging that can indicate future paths for the entire hemisphere."
Despite his success in curbing the Maoist guerrilla group Shining Path, and bringing a measure of domestic stability, Fujimori's iron-fisted rule became increasingly unpopular. He was criticized for subtly cracking down on media outlets critical of his adminstration.
* Material from the wire services was used in this story.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society