By Marco Aquino
LIMA (Reuters) - Latin America has got a new leftist star.
Pedro Castillo, a socialist and son of peasant farmers, is on the cusp of winning Peru's presidential election after rising from obscurity to all but beat a conservative rival, the daughter of a former president.
His rapid ascension may bode ill for conservatives across the region and herald a new 'pink tide' of leftist leaders, as raging poverty fanned by the coronavirus pandemic sways voters towards those who promise bigger government and higher social spending.
Upcoming elections could see the region's political and social faultlines being redrawn. Colombia's conservatives are under pressure ahead of a 2022 vote and in Chile the right faces defeat in elections this year, while the country is rewriting its decades-old constitution in the wake of popular protests.
Brazil is also facing an election battle next year, with a resurgent left looking to unseat right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro.
"The result from ballot boxes in Peru is symbolic and represents another advance in the popular struggle in our beloved Latin America," tweeted leftist former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
A survey in May showed either Lula or another possible leftist candidate would win a potential runoff vote next year against Bolsonaro, who has been widely criticized for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed some 500,000 Brazilians.
Latin America's left made its greatest strides with the first so-called 'pink-tide' of socialist leaders in the early 2000s.
Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan president, Bolivia's Evo Morales, and President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua - who remains in power - were joined by Raul Castro of Cuba, Lula in Brazil and Rafael Correa from Ecuador.
As the commodity boom that helped fund the social programs they championed ebbed away, though, that wave subsided and the right returned - with figures such as Bolsonaro in Brazil, Ivan Duque in Colombia, Mauricio Macri in Argentina and Sebastian Pinera from Chile.
A new shift to the left in Latin America could impact the balance of diplomacy with the United States and China. More state intervention and higher taxes could also affect investment in the agricultural and mineral-rich region, a major global supplier of goods from copper to corn.
"In Peru, Chile and Colombia, countries nurtured by the North American empire as a model of capitalism, we see rebellions against neo-liberalism," tweeted Morales, who heads Bolivia's ruling MAS socialist party and remains a powerful figure behind the scenes.
He said that students, socialist movements and workers were pushing for "structural changes."
In Peru, the rise of Castillo - whose narrow victory has yet to be officially confirmed by electoral authorities - was fueled by anger at the political elite, rising poverty and rural voters feeling excluded from the spoils of the Andean nation's mineral resources.
Castillo, who mixes conservative values with socialist ideas, slammed mining firms for "looting" and pledged to hike their taxes to pay for better healthcare and education. His success has rattled the Lima elite and Peru's financial markets.
"Today begins the real battle to end huge inequality," Castillo told cheering supporters after the election count showed him with a thin winning margin.
"Never again will we be an oppressed people... Let us be always on our feet and never on our knees!"
Across Latin America, the left has already been making strides. In Argentina, the center-left Peronists beat Macri in 2019. In Bolivia, after a period of political crisis, Morales' party returned to power with a landslide election win last year.
Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador sits firmly on the left, while authoritarian far-left governments in Venezuela and Cuba remain entrenched.
In Colombia, the right faces a stern challenge in a 2022 election from a former leftist rebel who is ahead in polls.
Even in Chile, for years a bastion of stability in a volatile region of 650 million people, protests spooked the political class and the redrafting of the constitution seems certain to bring more progressive policies.
"It is clear in recent years the forces of the left have reaped considerable triumph," Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in a opinion piece as part of a campaign against Castillo.
Carlos Mesa, a centrist opposition leader in Bolivia, told Reuters the challenge for traditional parties was countering the message from populist politicians, whether on the left or the right.
"I believe that the problem in Latin America is that it is facing a structural crisis of credibility in the democratic and political systems," he said.
That crisis of credibility has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has exposed entrenched inequalities. Many Latin Americans work in the informal sector and lack social safety nets when things go wrong, while healthcare provision is often inadequate.
"It has been the perfect storm for the left to capitalize on," said Miguel Rodriguez Mackay, a professor at the Universidad Mayor de San Marcos and president of the Peruvian Institute of Law and International Relations.
(Reporting by Marco Aquino in Lima, additional reporting by Monica Machicao in La Paz; Writing by Adam Jourdan, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)