LIMA, Peru — President Alberto Fujimori moved ever closer to outright victory Tuesday in the increasingly tense aftermath of Peru's presidential election, defying international pressure for a runoff vote and warnings of nationwide protests from challenger Alejandro Toledo.
By evening, the government's suspiciously slow vote count gave Fujimori 49.79% of the vote and Toledo 40.39%, leaving the president barely more than two-tenths of a percentage point from triumph with 90% of the vote counted. The final results will be announced today, election officials said.
As about 15,000 angry marchers rallied in a plaza outside the downtown hotel where opposition candidates awaited news of the vote count, Toledo announced that he will accept the outcome only if it results in a runoff, accompanied by immediate reforms in the electoral process.
Toledo, who backed off a threat to reject the results altogether, said the nation was on the verge of social upheaval. He urged his supporters to remain calm.
"Alejandro Toledo will not be the one who leads riots and violence," he said. "But we will not hesitate for a second to defend the rule of law."
Claiming he had prevented the outbreak of disturbances in eight cities, Toledo urged Fujimori to meet with him and defuse the crisis--Peru's worst since the president sent soldiers into the streets and shut down Congress in 1992.
Toledo and his allies also said he had held unspecified conversations with leaders of the Peruvian military. The armed forces have been staunchly supportive of the president, but there have been recent reports that junior officers resent the promotions of generals loyal to Vladimiro Montesinos, the president's powerful intelligence advisor.
"There is great discontent among young officers," said congressional candidate Jaime Salinas, a Toledo ally whose father, a former general, led a coup attempt against Fujimori eight years ago. "I'm not surprised that military officers are reaching out to [Toledo]. . . . This is an extremely delicate moment that calls for much reflection."
Many Peruvians appeared convinced of an imminent triumph by Fujimori, who says the electoral process was clean and refuses to let the results be dictated by projections based on representative vote samples taken by independent observers. But there were reports Tuesday night of ongoing talks between the government and foreign diplomats.
If Fujimori doesn't relent, he will pose a tough challenge to U.S., European and Latin American diplomats and observers who have placed themselves in an extraordinary position before the vote count is even complete: They insist that allegations of foul play make a runoff necessary in order to legitimize the electoral process.
The coming days will also test the leadership skills of Toledo, whose surprising performance at the polls thrust him to the forefront of the political opposition. He declined to reveal whether he will ask his victorious legislative candidates to block creation of a new Congress by refusing their elected posts. And he promised to head peaceful pro-democracy marches if he is defeated in the first round.
"We are going to travel across Peru again," said Toledo, a 54-year-old economist from an impoverished indigenous family. "We are going to demand respect for the political will of the women and men of Peru."
In Washington, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Tuesday repeated anew the State Department's concerns about allegations of vote fraud and discrepancies between the official results and scientific projections by election observers.
"I think that what is of concern to us is that there seems to be conflicting information on the results from the international observers and what comes out of Peru itself," Albright said. "I think that there will be a question about the legitimacy if these kinds of inconsistencies are there between what the international observers are saying and what the local reports are."
In Lima, the Peruvian capital, Fujimori remained silent. But allies and members of his Cabinet took to the airwaves to criticize Toledo and the foreign governments that have questioned the health of Peru's democracy.
"There is a desperation in the opposition because as time passes, the government of President Fujimori consolidates itself with its achievements," lawmaker Marta Chavez said. She accused foreign observers of treating Peru as if it were a colony.
On the streets, exasperated voters vented their anger at a government they described as a dictatorship in disguise. The downtown crowd, dominated by students, roared pro-democracy slogans, waved giant Peruvian flags and sang the national anthem as night fell.
"Fujimori has to understand that the people don't want him anymore," said Alvaro Bonilla, 24, a law student who came to the rally carrying his school backpack. "All the students have come to tell Fujimori: 'Enough. We Peruvians can govern ourselves.' "
The students cheered Toledo when he appeared on a balcony at the Sheraton Hotel. They booed television news crews working for channels seen as resolutely pro-government.
Toledo said that those stations had been "kidnapped" by the president and that the government would have to allow a truly impartial entity to oversee an eventual runoff election to prevent dirty tricks and ensure both candidates fair access to media.
Indeed, as an all-news cable channel offered moment-by-moment coverage of the deepening crisis Tuesday, the seven free television channels all but ignored the turmoil. They broadcast cartoons, soap operas, comedy shows and a dubbed U.S. western instead.