Peruvians elect former shoeshine boy to power

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The Independent US

Peruvians elected Alejandro Toledo, a former shoeshine boy of Andean Indian descent, to be their next President after a bitterly fought campaign. The defeated candidate and former president, Alan Garcia, conceded to Mr Toledo on Sunday night after the first official results confirmed initial predictions from exit polls.

International observers said the election was Peru's cleanest in years and an important step on the road to democracy.

Mr Toledo told thousands gathered in front of the Sheraton Hotel in central Lima: "Tonight, Peruvians celebrate the triumph of democracy. I swear, brothers and sisters, I will never let you down." The crowds chanted: "Long live the President" and his campaign nickname "Pachacutec", which he chose in honour of an Inca emperor.

Official results with just over 75 per cent of ballots counted gave Mr Toledo 51.99 per cent of valid votes, to 48.01 per cent for Mr Garcia. The victory crowned a 14-month battle for Mr Toledo, who made his name in pro-democracy street protests last year against the disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori. A year ago Mr Toledo pulled out of a run-off vote for the presidency amid allegations of massive vote rigging by Mr Fujimori.

The new President's biggest challenges will be to show the Peruvian people that he is effectively tackling the corruption left over from the Fujimori era, and to rebuild public confidence in government institutions.

His management of the economy will be closely watched by international investors. His experience as an American-trained economist with the World Bank is likely to calm international markets.

Foreign currency investors had become increasingly concerned at the prospect of Mr Garcia taking the reins, given his past record of economic mismanagement. Under the Garcia administration of 1985 to 1990, the inflation rate reached 7,500 per cent.

Peru's £38bn economy is in deep recession, unemployment is 7.4 per cent and the country is reeling after months of corruption scandals.

Mr Toledo becomes Peru's first freely elected president of Indian descent. Indians face widespread discrimination in Peru and he made his ethnic background a badge of honour in the election.

In his concession speech Mr Garcia pledged to support the next government and said that his party was greatly strengthened by the result.

The head of the Organisation of American States observer delegation, Eduardo Stein, said that the electoral process was "flawless"and marked an important first step towards true democracy.

Mr Toledo, with only a slim margin of victory and allegations of drug abuse and sexual misconduct made against him during the campaign, will have to work hard to overcome public distrust. Confidence in politicians is at an all-time low.