By Marco Aquino
LIMA (Reuters) - Peru's socialist party and presidential candidate Pedro Castillo have cheered their likely victory in the Andean country's tightly-contested election, despite right-wing rival Keiko Fujimori's pledge to fight on until the last vote is counted.
The polarized contest, a crossroads moment for the mineral-rich nation, seems set to tilt Peru sharply to the left, which has rattled the political establishment, markets and miners in the world's no. 2 producer of the red metal copper.
Castillo, a former teacher, is leading with 50.14% of the vote with 99.935% of ballots tallied, with the route back for Fujimori, who has made unfounded allegations of fraud, looking increasingly unlikely - barring an unexpected late twist.
"The people have already chosen their path," Castillo told hundreds of his followers on Saturday night in Lima and asked the authorities to wrap up the count as fast as possible.
"No more polarization in the country. Let us leave it to the authorities so that once and for all these things are no longer prolonged and so the popular will is respected."
Thousands of Peruvian supporters of both Castillo and Fujimori marched in Lima on Saturday as anxiety over the painstaking vote count has continued to build.
The gap between the two candidates is less than 0.3 of a percentage point, or some 49,420 votes. Fujimori, the heir of a powerful political family and daughter of ex-President Alberto Fujimori who is in prison for human rights abuses and corruption, has insisted on claims of fraud and sought unsuccessfully to annul as many as 200,000 votes.
"I am a person who never gives up," Fujimori, 46, told hundreds of supporters as she led a protest on Saturday in downtown Lima, many of her backers holding the red and white Peruvian flag.
Castillo's party has rejected accusations of fraud and international observers of the process in Lima have stated that the elections were transparent.
Castillo, 51, has already received congratulations from some leftist Latin American leaders, prompting official protests from Peru's current interim government who has asked everyone to wait until the electoral body formally announces the result.
Peru's new president should come into office on July 28, facing the challenge of steering the country beyond the world's deadliest COVID-19 outbreak per capita, healing a divided nation and reviving an economy amid rising level of poverty.
(Reporting by Marco Aquino; Writing by Dave Sherwood and Adam Jourdan; editing by Diane Craft)