By Kejal Vyas and Ryan Dube 

A far-left activist in Peru who pledges to seize foreign mines and the daughter of a former authoritarian president will face each other in a presidential election that gives voters two starkly different ideological options in a country battered by political turmoil and the pandemic.

The election pits Pedro Castillo, a 51-year-old former schoolteacher who says he would nationalize mining projects and dismantle a business-friendly economic model, against Keiko Fujimori, whose father ruled Peru with an iron hand.

That Mr. Castillo, who leads a Marxist-inspired party that glorifies Fidel Castro, could win office is rattling a business class that has prospered as Peru's trade-friendly economy boomed for much of the last two decades. Among major investors here are subsidiaries of Anglo American PLC, Newmont Mining Corp. of Denver, and Aluminum Corporation of China.

"We're often told that only political scientists, constitutionalists, erudite politicians, those with grand degrees can govern a country," Mr. Castillo told supporters recently. "They've had enough time."

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, he said he sees this election as a "competition between the rich and the poor...I see a fight between the boss and the laborer, the master and the slave."

The emergence of two candidates on the far spectrums of Peru's politics has deeply concerned an establishment badly shaken by the recent ouster of presidents, corruption scandals and protests. Now, Peruvian political observers worry about the candidates' democratic credentials.

"I'm very worried about the survival of Peruvian democracy," said Julio Carrion, a Peruvian political scientist at the University of Delaware. "Regardless of who wins, two-thirds of the country is going to be unhappy, and the winner may misread the results thinking they have a mandate that they really don't have."

A spokeswoman for Ms. Fujimori declined to comment. Mr. Castillo's spokesman said "the constitutional order is guaranteed" if he ends up ruling Peru.

The two front-runners emerged Sunday from a pool of 18 candidates from myriad nonideological parties that participated in the first round of elections. Mr. Castillo won 19% of the vote to 13% for Ms. Fujimori. They now go to a second and final stage of voting on June 6.

Though a social conservative, Mr. Castillo's party lauds the leftist revolutionary governments of Cuba and Venezuela and aims to replicate their policies by expanding state control over industry. In 2017, Mr. Castillo led a strike by a radical faction of the teachers union that officials at the time said was composed of members of a ruthless former Maoist insurgency.

"He's a wolf in sheep's clothing," said Carlos Basombrio, who as interior minister at the time presented police intelligence reports to Congress outlining the alleged radical ties. "This is the world he moves in."

Mr. Castillo denies the accusations.

Ms. Fujimori, who until May was jailed at a women's detention center in Lima on money-laundering charges she denies, has said she would free her father, Alberto Fujimori, who is serving a 25-year prison term for human-rights crimes and corruption from his 10-year presidency, which ended in 2000.

Whoever wins will face a deeply fragmented Congress. Mr. Castillo's far-left platform is likely to impede his ability to build the political coalitions necessary to win over centrist parties, economists at JPMorgan Chase said in a report to clients Monday.

"It is inconceivable that whoever wins is going to be able to govern effectively," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue policy group in Washington.

But after Sunday's vote -- in which Peruvians also elected lawmakers -- Mr. Castillo's party is expected to have the most seats in Congress, even though it will lack a majority.

For many Peruvians, the election is a low point for the nation's young democracy, threatening a return to the political upheaval that had been the norm for much of its history.

The economy contracted by 11% in 2020 as the pandemic raged, killing more than 55,000 and giving the country one of the world's highest mortality rates from Covid-19.

The pandemic came in the wake of violent protests in November against Congress after lawmakers ousted President Martin Vizcarra. In the span of a week, Peru was led by three presidents.

Often donning a straw hat, Mr. Castillo swept up support across the Andean highlands, his stronghold.

He promised to hike teachers' salaries and tackle inequality as millions of people were driven back into poverty by the pandemic. He has pledged to draft a new constitution that will give the government control over mining, gas and oil while sharply raising taxes and limiting the profits foreign investors can repatriate. And he says he will close the Constitutional Tribunal, the country's high court.

Though the motto of Mr. Castillo's party is "We're going to socialism without fear," his campaign message is seen as a warning to foreign businesses: "No more looting of Peru."

Ms. Fujimori, who lost bids for the presidency in 2011 and 2016, is building alliances with center-right parties in the hope of gaining an upper hand.

But she faces serious hurdles, including graft charges, which she says are politically motivated. Ms. Fujimori has also been overshadowed by the legacy of her father, who beat back the fanatical Shining Path rebels but fled his country in disgrace in the face of revelations of rights abuses.

When he was president, she served as first lady because he had divorced. Many Peruvians blame her party's actions in Congress for the political upheaval of the past five years.

María González, a 60-year-old nurse in Lima, said she doesn't know whom to support. The only reason she voted Sunday was to avoid the fine Peru levies against those who abstain from casting a ballot.

"They're both awful," Ms. González said of the two candidates. "I don't want to vote for anyone. We're tired."

Write to Kejal Vyas at kejal.vyas@wsj.com and Ryan Dube at ryan.dube@dowjones.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 13, 2021 17:38 ET (21:38 GMT)

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