Guatemala votes for new president amid tensions over violence, migration

Sandra Torres, presidential candidate for the National Unity of Hope (UNE) casts her vote at a polling station during the first round of the presidential election in Guatemala City, Guatemala, June 16, 2019. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) – Guatemalans on Sunday began voting for a new president, who will face the challenge of curbing drug gang violence that has convulsed the country and helped spur illegal immigration to the United States, fueling tensions with President Donald Trump.

Nineteen candidates are competing in the election, which is expected to yield no outright winner, forcing the top two contenders to face off in a second round on Aug. 11.

Former first lady Sandra Torres, of the center-left UNE party, has led the race to succeed President Jimmy Morales, a conservative former television host whose term has been blighted by accusations of corruption made by U.N.-backed investigators.

Torres, who wants to send troops onto the streets to fight drug gangs, and to tackle poverty with welfare programs, has support of around 20 percent of the electorate, polls show.

“We have to sort out our problems here, and part of the reason for the migration is the lack of jobs, the gap in wages between the United States and here,” Torres said as she arrived to cast her vote in Guatemala City. “We need to work with the business community to revive the economy and create jobs.”

Her closest rivals, trailing by a few percentage points, are conservatives Alejandro Giammattei, who is running in his fourth campaign, and Edmond Mulet, a former United Nations official whose candidacy has gained traction in the run-up to the vote.

Mulet, who arrived to vote driving a white car with his wife and son, stressed that he had run an austere campaign, and said he was hopeful of making the second round run-off.

Rampant violence and widespread discontent over corruption and impunity in the country of 17 million have prompted more and more Guatemalans to flee for the United States.

The surge of departures has undermined Trump’s pledge to curb illegal immigration, and the U.S. president has responded by threatening to cut U.S. aid to Central America.

That prospect has caused alarm in Guatemala, where the legacy of the bloody 1960-1996 civil war continues to cast a long shadow over the country’s development.

Polling stations close at 6 p.m. (0000 GMT) and results are due to begin to coming in from around 7 p.m. (0100 GMT).

COALITION PROSPECTS

To avoid a run-off, one of the candidates needs to win more than 50 percent of the vote, a result pollsters deem highly unlikely. Securing victory will likely depend on candidates’ ability to build a coalition for the second round.

In research report on Friday, Eurasia Group said Torres would struggle to win a run-off, given her high rejection rate and the ability of her likely opponent to unify the conservative vote and secure support from the country’s powerful elites.

Morales, who is barred by law from seeking re-election, took office in 2016 vowing to root out corruption after his predecessor was brought down by a probe led by the U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

Instead, Morales himself became a target of a CICIG probe into allegations of campaign finance wrongdoing and was subject to impeachment proceedings in 2017.

He survived the attempt to oust him, and then engaged in a bitter dispute with the CICIG before finally terminating its mandate, effective from September.

“Guatemala needs a transparent government, more security,” said Dalila Lorenzana, a 46-year-old homemaker, after voting. “And for the CICIG to stay in Guatemala and a stronger economy.”

Questions of legitimacy have dogged the 2019 contest since two of the front-runners were forced out, including Thelma Aldana, a former attorney general who tried to impeach Morales with the CICIG. The government accused Aldana of corruption, leading to her exclusion last month.

Allegations of shady dealings have permeated the election, which has been fought out amid intensifying efforts by Trump to turn Mexico and Guatemala into buffer zones to keep undocumented migrants out of the United States.

Presidential hopeful Mario Estrada and congressional candidate Julio Jose Rosales were arrested during the campaign and charged with having links to Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel.

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