By Marco Aquino
LIMA (Reuters) - Peru's Pedro Castillo has come a long way to be on the cusp of winning the Andean nation's presidential election.
The son of peasant farmers, who lives humbly as a teacher in Peru's north and tends animals on his land, is the narrow favorite ahead of Sunday's run-off vote that has become a referendum on wealth and poverty in the copper-rich country.
Castillo, 51, who represents the socialist Peru Libre party, shot to prominence in April when he shocked analysts and pollsters to win the first-round vote. He even caught some major news outlets off guard, as they did not have a caption photo for him.
His rise has been driven by widespread discontent of the traditional political parties and spiking poverty in the country of some 33 million people, which has been hammered by the world's deadliest coronavirus outbreak.
"Never again a poor man in a rich country!" is a key refrain at his rallies, where he often sports a wide-brimmed hat, sometimes dances and carries a huge inflatable pencil - the symbol of his party and echo of his background in education.
"How it is possible that in such a rich country there is so much misery, so much inequality," he said at the final pre-election debate in late May against conservative rival Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori who is in prison for human rights abuses and corruption. The two are neck-and-neck in the polls.
Castillo has pledged to redraft Peru's constitution to strengthen the role of the state, take a far larger portion of profits from mining firms who he says have "plundered" the country and has threatened to nationalize key industries, sending jitters among investors and miners.
"We must nationalize the Camisea Gas project, the gold, the silver, the uranium, the copper, the lithium that has just been handed to other countries, it has to be for Peruvians," he said in April in his home region of Cajamarca.
Opponents say Castillo's plans would shake the country's political and economic foundations after more than three decades of market-friendly administrations that have made Peru a relative safe-haven in volatile Latin America.
In protester marches some claimed he would take Peru towards communism and likened him to authoritarian leftists such as former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez - a comparison Castillo strongly rejects. Signs with messages warning of "the threat" have appeared in the streets.
Castillo, who achieved local fame as the leader of a long teachers' strike in 2017, lives in a small town with his wife Lilia Paredes, also a teacher, and has three children.
The socialist candidate wants to overturn the "neoliberal model" of the world's no. 2 copper producer and give wealth back to Peruvians, including spending more on education and weak healthcare systems that have been exposed by COVID-19.
"We must understand that the pandemic is a structural problem, it is not only a health problem, the health problem in Peru has been totally neglected," he said.
José Diez Días, 75, in the Plaza de Chota in the Andean region where Castillo was born, played down criticism against the candidate, who obtained a bachelor's degree in education and a master's degree in educational psychology.
"He's known as a teacher and he has been a good person," he told Reuters, adding he supported Castillo as Peruvians needed help. "We go hungry and we have to support our countrymen."
Castillo, who arrived on horseback to vote in the first round ballot, has looked to moderate his message during the campaign, but remains firm on redistributing wealth and his conservative social views, including opposing abortion.
Analysts said that if he wins, Castillo would likely need to soften his stance anyhow to push through reforms with a fragmented Congress where no single party will hold a majority.
"We think both of them would definitely tone down their pre-electoral speech," said Shamaila Khan, head of emerging market debt strategies at AllianceBernstein in New York, adding the election looked wide open.
"Our expectation is it will be much more status quo in terms of policy making."
(Reporting by Marco Aquino; Additional reporting by Marcelo Rochabrun in Cajamarca and Rodrigo Campos in New York; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Diane Craft)