LIMA (Reuters) - Peru's electoral board on Thursday reproached President Ollanta Humala for piggybacking on criticism of next month's elections following the board's controversial decision to bar two leading presidential candidates from the race.
Francisco Tavara, president of the National Jury of Elections, urged Humala to back the board as it fights allegations that it was unfairly favoring established politicians at the expense of newcomers.
The electoral board turned this year's race on its head last week when it disqualified front-runner Keiko Fujimori's biggest rival from the race for not complying with electoral rules. It barred another candidate for handing out cash while campaigning.
The twin decisions, a month before the April 10 elections, have stoked opposition to center-right Fujimori, the daughter of imprisoned former President Alberto Fujimori, and triggered protests calling for her disqualification as well.
Humala cited a damaged democratic process when withdrawing his party from the race after it had trailed far behind in polls for months.
In a March 10 resolution he signed as a member of his party's executive committee, Humala said this year's elections had been marked by a lack of transparency and coherence from electoral authorities.
"It's worrisome," Tavara said at a press conference for foreign media. "The president should stick to the principle of neutrality."
Humala, a former leftist military officer who has governed more moderately than expected, declined to comment immediately, a spokeswoman said. His prime minister has ruled out postponing elections.
Humala cannot seek a second consecutive term and his presidential candidate failed to rally much support.
The ruling party's decision to abandon the race was widely seen as a ploy to avoid gathering tens of thousands of signatures to register in future elections in case the party did not win the 5 percent minimum of votes needed to stay enrolled.
Humala's jabs at the electoral board added to doubts over the legitimacy of this year's election and raised the prospect of electoral institutions becoming a punching bag for luckless politicians.
Tavara denied the board had any political bias, saying, "We're here to defend democracy."
Fujimori and other candidates might still be barred from the race, Tavara said, as inquiries into wrongdoing were ongoing.
Critics say Fujimori broke a law against vote-buying because she presided over events where prizes were handed out to supporters. Her running mate, Jose Chlimper, said she never touched the envelopes containing prizes and joked that the Virgin Mary had protected her.
(Reporting by Mitra Taj and Marco Aquino; Editing by Leslie Adler)