Rural school teacher Pedro Castillo has cast himself as the winner of Peru's presidential elections

Lima (AFP) - Far-left trade unionist Pedro Castillo has cast himself as the winner of Peru’s presidential election, thanking foreign nations for “victory” messages even as election officials said Wednesday the race was not over.

With over 99.8 percent of votes cast in Sunday’s presidential poll counted by Wednesday afternoon, rural school teacher Castillo retained a very narrow leading score of 50.19 percent over right-wing populist rival Keiko Fujimori’s 49.8 percent.

Supporters of right-wing populist candidate Keiko Fujimori took to the streets after she claimed 'signs of fraud' in the vote count

Even as the ONPE electoral body held back on announcing an outcome, Castillo said party observers considered his triumph a done deal.

“In the name of the Peruvian people,” Castillo thanked “embassies and governments from Latin America and other countries” for messages of congratulations on his “victory.”

No government has officially recognized a Castillo victory, although Bolivian former president Evo Morales sent a message of “congratulations for this victory.”

Castillo leads by more than 67,000 of the 17.4 million valid votes counted, but with votes still being tallied and ballots being challenged by both sides it could take days for a final official result to be announced.

As in Peru’s three previous presidential elections, also tightly-run, the tail-end of vote counting has been slow due to delays in the arrival of ballots in Lima from Peru’s rural and jungle areas, and from abroad – where one million of the country’s 25 million eligible voters live.

Fujimori has taken most of the expat votes counted, but Castillo is widely popular among rural electors.

Rural supporters of Pedro Castillo march outside Peru's national election office in a show of support for their presidential candidate

“We will be a government respectful of democracy, of the current constitution, we will… create a government with financial and economic stability,” Castillo told a singing and dancing crowd of supporters late Tuesday.

He urged election officials to be “respectful,” adding: “let us not tarnish the will of the Peruvian people.”

- Three presidents in a week -

Peruvians voted on Sunday for their fifth president in three years after a series of crises and corruption scandals saw three different leaders in the office in a single week last year.

Fujimori, 46, led in early counting, but Castillo, 51, slowly gained ground.

As he overtook her, Fujimori alleged “irregularities” and “signs of fraud,” telling reporters she had evidence of “a clear intention to boycott the popular will.”

For Fujimori (C) the stakes are higher than mere power. She faces a corruption trial if Castillo wins

For Fujimori, the stakes are higher than mere power: she faces more than 30 years prison if convicted on charges of taking money from scandal-tainted Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to fund presidential bids in 2011 and 2016. She has already spent 16 months in pretrial detention.

Under Peruvian law, an election victory would see the charges suspended until after her term, but defeat could see her put on trial.

The ONPE dismissed any possibility of counting fraud, as did the Organization of American States which said the count had “conformed to official procedures.”

Both candidates had previously agreed to respect the outcome.

On Wednesday, Peru’s military committed itself in a statement to “respect the will of the people expressed at the ballot box,” even as calls circulated on social media for the armed forces to prevent Castillo from taking power.

- Polar opposites -

Whoever wins will lead a nation battered by recession and the world’s highest coronavirus fatality rate, with more than 186,000 deaths among its 33 million population.

Two million Peruvians have lost their jobs during the pandemic and nearly a third now live in poverty, official figures show.

Supporters of Pedro Castillo march outside the national election office in Lima to show support for their candidate

Peruvians will also be looking for stability, with seven of their last 10 leaders either convicted or under investigation for graft.

Fujimori, the daughter of jailed ex-president Alberto Fujimori, backs a neoliberal economic model of tax cuts and boosting private activity to generate jobs.

Country profile of Peru, where a presidential runoff vote was held on June 6

Castillo has pledged to nationalize vital industries, raise taxes and increase state regulation.

Fujimori warned that Peru risked becoming a new Venezuela or North Korea under her rival.

Castillo, in turn, pointed to the Fujimori family’s history of corruption scandals.