Peruvians clubbed as they protest over 'rigged ballot'

Nearly four thousand opposition supporters marched to the Presidential Palace in Lima before dawn yesterday, carrying the Peruvian presidential hopeful Alejandro Toledo on their shoulders. Then 2,000 riot police beat them back with tear gas and clubs.

The crowd was incensed by an 11th-hour turnaround of exit poll surveys, which suddenly gave the incumbent, Alberto Fujimori, a 7.4 per cent edge, after predicting earlier that Mr Toledo might squeak in with a first round victory. They were protesting against possible electronic ballot rigging, and produced official polls that had omitted Mr Toledo's Peru Possible party. The vote count will take days to trickle in, but a run-off between these two, known as "El Chino" ('the Chinaman", because of Mr Fujimori's Asian features) and "El Cholo" (for Mr Toledo's Indian descent), is likely.

"If they try to distort the will of the people, I will be the first in the front line to defend our rights," Mr Toledo, an indigenous shoeshine boy turned university professor, rasped to a throng that had gathered to revel in his victory, predicted by early exit polls. One of 16 children and the first candidate with Indian heritage who has a chance to lead Peru, Mr Toledo had promised that his inauguration would be held at the Inca stronghold Macchu Picchu and bring in a new era of ethnic pride. That proved premature.

In his run for an unprecedented third term, President Fujimori, 61, has doled out food and future land grants to the poor. He is still held in highregard in many quarters for vanquishing Shining Path terrorists andcrippling hyperinflation. Rural backwaters are his stronghold, and have not been caught up in the surge of popularity for the charismatic 54-year-old challenger.

Transparency, a local watchdog organisation that had thousands of volunteers overseeing Sunday's vote, said the election was marred by blatant irregularities. Cuts in power and telephone lines hindered operations, and a mysterious computer virus plagued their programs. The group also objected to military personnel intimidating voters. Outside observers pointed out Mr Fujimori's misuse of government funds in his campaign for the conservative alliance, Peru 2000. He also is accused of limiting his rivals' access to the government-owned television stations.

Vladimir Montesinos, head of Peruvian military intelligence, ensured that the top strata of the armed forces were loyal to the President - he has pensioned off any generals who opposed Mr Fujimori's third term. One general confessed: "We were too busy trying to destroy terrorism to know that Montesinos was subverting the armed forces to his will."

The 35-nation Organisation of American States has condemned attacks on Mr Fujimori's rivals and has threatened to take steps against the incumbent if he is declared the winner of an election thatis not considered free and fair. If a run-off is scheduled within two months, Mr Toledo's momentum could make him unstoppable; he now has the backing of five of Mr Fujimori's rivals.

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