LIMA (Reuters) - Peru's electoral committee said on Wednesday it might bar a leading presidential candidate from the race if a university in Spain verifies plagiarism allegations against him.
Cesar Acuña, a wealthy former governor and businessman who is tied for second place in recent polls, has denied claims that he copied the work of others without attribution in his 2009 doctoral thesis on education.
The Complutense University of Madrid opened an inquiry after Twitter users accused Acuña of plagiarism based on several pages of the thesis.
"If they withdraw or invalidate his diploma or title, obviously that would mean falsehood ... he would be removed if it's falsehood," said Francisco Tavara, the president of Peru's National Jury of Elections.
Acuña, who once boasted at a book fair that he never reads, owns three private universities in Peru and has made improving education a central campaign pledge. In December he told Reuters he believed he was gaining in polls because Peruvians want an honest, hard-working leader.
Eliminating Acuña from the presidential race could boost the chances of front-running candidate Keiko Fujimori, who competes with him for key votes from the poor. It could also benefit other lesser-known candidates, hoping to garner enough support to face Fujimori in a runoff.
"I deny the accusations and the attempt to use this matter to invalidate my candidacy," Acuña told a news conference where he declined to take questions. "All authors consulted for my work are included as bibliographic references."
Peruvians will head to polls on April 10 for the first presidential election since a decade-long mining boom ended. Acuña and other candidates have vowed to bolster weak economic growth and crack down on crime that has risen under President Ollanta Humala.
Fujimori, the conservative daughter of jailed ex-president Alberto Fujimori, has been drawing about a third of voter support in recent polls but needs at least 50 percent of ballots to avoid a second-round contest in June.
Acuña had 13 percent support in an Ipsos survey this month, matching investor favorite Pedro Pablo Kuczynski who has slipped in recent polls.
Popular in part because of his rags-to-riches story, Acuña has shaken off previous setbacks ranging from domestic violence allegations, which he denies, to criticism for putting his children and brother on his party's list of congressional candidates.
Reporting By Mitra Taj; Editing by Alistair Bell and Tom Brown