Peru has been left teetering on the edge of a constitutional crisis as the count of Sunday's bitterly polarised presidential election descended into legal wrangling that could delay a final result by days or even weeks.
With over 99 per cent of votes counted, hard-left candidate Pedro Castillo holds a narrow but apparently irreversible lead over his rival Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the country's former dictator Alberto.
A primary school teacher from the poor rural interior, Mr Castillo won 50.2 percent to Ms Fujimori’s 49.8 per cent, an advantage of just over 71,000 votes from the 18.7 million cast.
Faced with losing her third consecutive presidential bid by the narrowest of margins Ms Fujimori, who is heavily backed by the country’s elite, which views her opponent’s radical socialist agenda with horror, has resorted to allegations of fraud. Her team is attempting to have around 200,000 ballots which largely went to Mr Castillo thrown out in a bid to overturn her deficit.
Faced with his opponent’s attempts to deny him victory Mr Castillo declared himself the winner on Tuesday night, telling supporters “the people have spoken” and calling on them “to defend the vote”.
While legal, Ms Fujimori’s unprecedented offensive to overturn the result by questioning large numbers of votes awarded to her opponent has been met with severe criticism and is seen by many as an attempt to subvert the democratic process.
Jorge Luis Salas, the head of the country's electoral body, said the system was not designed to handle the number of reviews being demanded by the losing side. "What is happening now is extraordinary," he told local media. It is not immediately clear how long it will take to review the volume of votes being questioned.
The effort also has little chance of success according to local constitutional experts. Despite the seriousness of the allegations it has made, the Fujimori team has provided no substantive evidence to back up its fraud claims.
Faced with the imminent prospect of Mr Castillo being declared the winner, many of Ms Fujimori’s supporters took to social media to urge the armed forces to intervene. The clamour for a military takeover became so intense as it became clear on Wednesday that Mr Castillo was heading for victory, the ministry of defence was forced to release a statement in which the armed forces reaffirmed their commitment to democracy and called “on all Peruvians to respect the results of the electoral process”.
Adding to the sense of political crisis, a prosecutor sought on Thursday to have Ms Fujimori detained for violating parole conditions. Ahead of the campaign she had been released from house arrest where she had been awaiting trial on money laundering charges related to her role in a multimillion euro bribery scheme. She faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.