Corruption-weary Guatemalans are set to elect a new president Sunday after a tumultuous campaign that saw two leading candidates barred from taking part and the top electoral crimes prosecutor forced to flee the country, fearing for his life.
Gang violence, poverty and streams of US-bound migrants have dominated campaigning in Central America’s most populous country, where a crowded field of 19 candidates is vying to succeed outgoing president Jimmy Morales.
The country’s top anti-corruption campaigner, former attorney general Thelma Aldana, is not among them. She was expected to poll strongly, but was barred from running last month over allegations of irregularities dating from when she was a barnstorming public prosecutor.
Sandra Torres, a 63-year-old businesswoman and former First Lady, heads into the election as favorite, having built a clear opinion poll lead over second placed Alejandro Giammattei, also 63.
Torres — candidate for the center-left Unity of Hope (UNE) — has over 22 percent of voter preferences in the latest polls, while Giammettei, a doctor running for the conservative Vamos party, trails with just over 11 percent.
However, neither is seen as likely to poll strongly enough Sunday to avoid a runoff round on August 11.
Analysts believe Torres, a polarizing figure since her years as the Central American country’s First Lady, would struggle in a second round, given Giammettei’s ability to unify the conservative vote against her.
Three other candidates are vying for third place, with indigenous woman Thelma Cabrera building momentum in the closing stages of the campaign.
Guatemala’s electorate of eight million is also voting in congressional and municipal elections on Sunday. Torres’ UNE is expected to poll strongly but fall short of a majority in the deeply fractured 160-seat congress.
The ex-wife of late president Alvaro Colom, in power from 2008-2012, Torres has pledged health and education reforms as well as jobs to stem the flow of migration to the US. She has vowed to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage.
Giammattei has vowed to bring back the death penalty to help crush violent gangs, fight poverty to stop migration and end “disgusting” corruption.
Monitors from the Organization of American States (OAS), led by former Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis, are supervising the polls.
All police leave has been cancelled and around 40,000 police have been put on alert, while the military has been mobilized to guard key buildings and jails.
Authorities have expressed concern about possible outbreaks of violence in at least 55 municipalities.
Guatemala has one of the world’s highest homicide rates: official statistics put the rate at 22.4 murders per 100,000 people at the end of 2018.
Around half the killings are blamed on drug trafficking and extortion operations carried out by powerful gangs.
– Presidents and moguls –
Morales, a former TV comedian who won power in 2015 — beating Torres in the run-off — is obliged to step down under Guatemala’s one-term rules.
His predecessor Otto Perez is in jail for corruption and he himself faces a corruption inquiry into illegal campaign funding.
That was instigated by Aldana and the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) that has put former presidents, ministers and business moguls in jail.
Aldana — who fled to the United States after receiving death threats — told AFP her exclusion was orchestrated by those she put in prison and their allies, who saw her as a “hindrance”.
Also barred from running was Zury Rios, daughter of late dictator Efrain Rios Montt, under constitutional rules that prevent his relatives from seeking the presidency.
And this week, as polling stations were being prepared across the country, Oscar Schaad, the electoral court’s top prosecutor, said he had been forced to flee the country, citing threats to him and his family.
Some polls place Roberto Arzu, son of the late former president Alvaro Arzu (1996-2000), in third place.
Tough-talking Arzu warned criminal gangs he would leave no stone unturned in a quest to hunt them down if he is elected. Then he would give them a choice, he said: “surrender or die right there.”