LIMA, Peru – Alejandro Toledo, a U.S.-trained economist with Indian roots, finished first in Peru's presidential election Sunday but fell short of a majority and will face a runoff, according to preliminary results.
He will likely face former President Alan Garcia, a left-leaning populist, in a second round in late May or early June, the preliminary results showed. Eight candidates were vying to become the successor to disgraced former President Alberto Fujimori.
Toledo, 55, finished second to Fujimori in elections last year but ended up boycotting a fraudulent runoff against the autocratic leader, who fled Peru in November amid mounting corruption scandals.
Early official returns representing 20 percent of districts gave Toledo 36.44 percent Sunday, compared to 25.88 percent for Garcia and 23.65 percent for Flores, election officials said.
Transparencia, a widely respected independent election watchdog group, had similar forecast based on a sample of ballot tallies.
Toledo faced his strongest challenge from Garcia, a discredited ex-president returned from exile, and Lourdes Flores, a conservative former congresswoman.
"Today, Peru was the winner. We have obtained a great victory," Toledo told hundreds of supporters at a downtown Lima hotel. "We have won in votes and in democracy, even if we did not achieve the 51 percent."
Garcia, 51, a tall, silver-tongued populist, led Peru's government from 1985 to 1990. His administration left the country mired in hyperinflation and surging guerrilla violence.
Forced into exile two years after Fujimori was elected in 1990, Garcia returned in January when corruption charges against him expired. His phoenix-like resurrection is a tribute to his oratorical skills and, according to his foes, to the amazingly short memories of his countrymen.
"I don't say I haven't made mistakes. Certainly I have, but I accept them and have corrected them," Garcia said after the exit polls were released, explaining why Peruvians should not fear his return to power.
Painting himself as elder statesman who has matured and put behind his youthful leftist ideas, Garcia said earlier that regardless of who wins the runoff he was "convinced that things are going to improve because we are leaving behind a dictatorship."
Flores, 41, is a member of Lima's white elite with a reputation for honesty. She had been in second place in opinion polls going into Sunday's election, but her campaign had begun to fade in recent days after her father made a racial slur against Toledo.
Flores questioned Garcia's predicted second-place finish, saying absentee ballots from abroad could swing the vote in her favor.
The election was Peru's first since the ouster of Fujimori, Peru's iron-fisted ruler for more than a decade.
A year ago, Fujimori trampled constitutional restrictions and won a third straight five-year term in elections marred by fraud and dirty tricks. But he fled in November amid corruption scandals involving Vladimiro Montesinos, his intelligence chief, and he now lives in self-imposed exile in Japan, his ancestral homeland.
In a televised speech to the nation Saturday night, interim President Valentin Paniagua assured Peruvians that this year's special elections would be clean and fair.
Toledo, who has a doctorate from Stanford University and has been a visiting scholar at Harvard, is a "cholo," the Peruvian term for a person of mixed Indian and white blood. He has capitalized on his rise from shoeshine boy to an economist with the World Bank and on the resentment toward the European-descended elite that has long dominated politics in Peru.
Indians make up 45 percent of Peru's 26 million inhabitants and 37 percent are of mixed Indian and white blood. No Indian or mestizo has been freely elected president in Peru's history although several have come to power through military coups.
"My candidate is Toledo because he is a cholo like me," said Juan Hurtado Rivera, 59, who lost a high-paying job in a state petroleum company when it was privatized under Fujimori's free-market economic program.
"He did a lot to force out Fujimori, who did so much damage to the country," said Rivera, who now works as a tailor out of his small home. "He deserves to be rewarded with the presidency. He is offering more work and we have to support him."
Nearly 15 million Peruvians were registered to vote for president as well as a new 120-member Congress.
Analysts said that the widespread corruption found in Fujimori's government had contributed to voter malaise.
Secretly recorded videotapes unearthed since Fujimori's ouster document Montesinos, now a fugitive, buying political favors with bribes to election officials, lawmakers, judges, generals, business leaders and media heads. Dozens of distinguished Peruvians have been tainted by the scandal.
Mudslinging and racial slurs dirtied the election campaign, with candidates accusing one another of resorting to the sleazy tactics that Fujimori's regime used against his opponents.
Toledo faced allegations he fathered a child out of wedlock and tested positive for cocaine use after a hotel rendezvous with three women. Flores charged that her foes were preparing a smear campaign involving accusations she is a lesbian.
In the closing days of the campaign, Toledo's wife, Eliane Karp, a Belgian anthropologist who speaks the Indian language Quechua, lashed out at "the little whites" in Lima. "A cholo government will come whether they want it to or not," she said.