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Guatemalans choose new president as many journey to US for better life

Guatemalans long have grown accustomed to an unpredictable political landscape.

Voters are choosing between 19 candidates for a four-year presidential term that begins in January 2020. The winner needs an absolute majority, making an August runoff between the two top vote-getters likely. More than 8.1 million citizens of the Central American nation will also be eligible to vote for the vice president, congressional representatives and mayors.

Guatemalans voted for a new president Sunday following an electoral process that generated widespread disillusion and distrust, and came as tens of thousands were fleeing poverty and gang violence to seek a new life in the United States.

An estimated 1 percent of Guatemala’s population of some 16 million people has left the country this year.

The top five candidates for president are: former first lady Sandra Torres of the National Unity and Hope party, who is expected to finish first but without enough votes to win in the first round; former prison director and four-time presidential candidate Alejandro Eduardo Giammattei Falla; businessman Roberto Arzu; lawyer and journalist Edmond Auguste Mulet Lesieur; and Thelma Cabrera, the only indigenous candidate.

But, the campaign season has been most noticeably marked by a chaotic flurry of court rulings, shenanigans, illegal party-switching and allegations of malfeasance that torpedoed the runs of two of the three front-runners, including Chief Prosecutor Thelma Aldana.

Aldana gained international renown for leading crusading anti-corruption investigations in tandem with a U.N. anti-graft commission operating in Guatemala but was booted from the race on the grounds that she lacked a document certifying that she didn’t have any outstanding accounts from her time overseeing a public budget as prosecutor.

The current election has marked the first time that Guatemalans could cast ballots from abroad: At least 60,000 were eligible to vote in Los Angeles, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C., all home to large numbers of Guatemalan emigrants.

Unemployment, violence, corruption, rising costs of living and the shoddy state of the country’s highways are among top concerns for the country’s electorate.

Three of the last four elected presidents have been arrested post-presidency on charges of corruption. Graft allegations have also targeted current President Jimmy Morales and his inner circle, though he’s denied wrongdoing and has been protected from prosecution due to his immunity while in office.

Marco Rene Cuellar, the first to vote at the Mixed Rural School in the municipality of Santa Catarina Pinula, said he hoped for the good faith of the winner because the country needed changes.

“There is a belief that instead of advancing in these four years of government, we’ve gone backward,” said the 39-year-old, adding that the candidates had little to offer. “We’ve lost our way as a country, but we should not lose faith in the democratic process we have.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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