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Social Democrats to Go Head-to-head in Guatemala’s August Election Runoff

A former first lady and the son of an ex-president – both social democrats – will go head-to-head in Guatemala’s August runoff after no candidate secured enough votes to win Sunday’s first round of presidential elections.

The battle between Sandra Torres and Bernardo Arevalo – who unexpectedly ended in second place having polled at number eight – means Guatemala will have its first leftist leader in more than a decade.

Torres, the ex-wife of deceased former president Alvaro Colom, came first Sunday with just over 15 percent of votes cast, followed by Arevalo with 12 percent, according to the near-complete count early Monday.

Both oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage and elective abortion in a staunchly Catholic Central American country.

Career diplomat Edmond Mulet and rightwinger Zury Rios, daughter of a former dictator, placed fifth and sixth respectively, having polled in the top three with Torres ahead of the vote.

The candidate from outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei’s Vamos party, Manuel Conde, came third out of a crowded field of 22 candidates.

“We are very pleased with the results,” said Arevalo, son of Juan Jose Arevalo who in 1945 became Guatemala’s first democratically-elected president after decades of dictatorship.

However, “now is not the time to crow victory, we are prudent,” the 64-year-old sociologist said.

For her part, Torres, 67, declared: “We are ready, ready and willing to win.” 

Representing the same National Unity of Hope (UNE) party as her ex-husband, Torres had lost her last two races in 2015 and 2019.

‘Always the same’ 

Sunday’s election saw low turnout and a high rate of blank or invalid ballots cast in protest, with few Guatemalans holding out hope that their next president will solve the problems of crushing poverty, violence and corruption.

The country of 17.6 million is one of Latin America’s poorest, a reality that has, along with high rates of violent crime, compelled hundreds of thousands to risk the perilous migrant journey north toward the “American dream.”

Rights groups have furthermore expressed increasing concern over perceived efforts to crack down on prosecutors and journalists in an apparent bid by the government to protect a corrupt system benefiting those in power.

“We woke up very early to vote. We vote with enthusiasm – and afterward, the presidents, it’s always the same thing,” voter Maria Chajon told AFP, resigned.

Guatemala has one of Latin America’s highest rates of social inequality, according to the World Bank.

More than half its inhabitants live in poverty and half of all children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition, according to the United Nations. 

Insecurity is another major election issue. Guatemala’s homicide rate is 17.3 per 100,000 inhabitants – about three times the world average, the UN says.

Burning ballots 

Sunday’s vote was marred by the exclusion of two popular candidates, Carlos Pineda and Thelma Cabrera, invalidated by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal decisions their supporters claim amounted to political sidelining.

On election day, Torres lobbed claims of “buying votes” against the ruling party, as Mulet also pointed to alleged irregularities.

Voters clashed with police and soldiers in San Jose del Golfo, 18 miles (30 kilometers) northeast of Guatemala City, amid allegations the mayor brought people from other districts to vote for the ruling party. 

Voting in the town was suspended.

In San Martin Zapotitlan police fired tear gas at demonstrators making similar allegations as they burned ballot papers at a local voting center.

Eleven people were arrested, police chief Edgar Moran said.

Giammattei, ending his constitutionally-limited single term with high disapproval ratings, did not comment on the claims of irregularities, instead accusing opposition groups of inciting violence.

According to early estimations, Giammattei’s Vamos party will become the biggest grouping in the 160-member Congress, taking about 40 seats.

Torres’s UNE, currently the biggest, will have about 27 and Arevalo’s Semilla (Seed) party 24. 

“There are no options to improve the country, they are the same as always,” lawyer Manuel Morales, 58, told AFP near the capital.

The runoff will be held on August 20.

Source: France 24