Guatemalans see polls as chance to emerge from violence, corruption

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Employees of the Electoral Supreme Court arrange ballots in Guatemala City

Employees of the Electoral Supreme Court arrange ballots in Guatemala City (AFP Photo/Johan ORDONEZ)

Guatemala City (AFP) - Wearied by corruption and violence, Guatemalans head to the polls on Sunday reeling from a campaign that saw two leading presidential candidates barred from running and a top electoral official forced to flee the country.

Gang violence, poverty and the US-bound migrant caravans they cause have dominated campaigning in Central America's most populous country, with a crowded field of 19 candidates vying to succeed Jimmy Morales as president.

Opinion polls make former First Lady Sandra Torres the favorite with 22.6 percent of the vote, well ahead of her closest rival, right-winger Alejandro Giammattei, with just over 11 percent.

Neither is seen as having enough support to get the 50 percent of the vote required to avoid a runoff on August 11.

The campaign has been mired in controversy since corruption-busting ex-attorney general Thelma Aldana was barred from running last month over allegations of irregularities dating from when she was public prosecutor.

Her cleanup campaign in tandem with the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) put former presidents, ministers and business moguls in jail.

- 'Hindrance' -

Aldana -- who fled to the United States after receiving death threats -- said her exclusion was orchestrated by those she put in prison and their allies, who saw her as a "hindrance" to their illicit interests.

"I was the only one at that moment with real possibilities to compete with the old politics, I was the nuisance at that moment," she told AFP by phone from an undisclosed location.

Also barred was Zury Rios, daughter of late dictator Efrain Rios Montt, because of constitutional rules that prevent direct relatives of coup-participants from running for office.

As the campaign limped to the finish line this week, the government announced that Oscar Schaad, the electoral court's top prosecutor, had been forced to flee the country, citing threats to him and his family.

Torres, 63, running for the center-left National Unity of Hope party, is the ex-wife of late president Alvaro Colom, in power from 2008-2012.

She has pledged health and education reforms and jobs to stem the flow of migration to the US. She has vowed to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage.

Giammattei, 63, has vowed to bring back the death penalty to help crush violent gangs, fight poverty to stop migration and end "disgusting" corruption.

- Morales in the spotlight -

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.

But he wraps up his four-year term facing a corruption investigation over dodgy campaign finances, with his popularity rating through the floor.

His predecessor Otto Perez is in jail, forced to step down months before the end of his mandate amid massive protests over corruption allegations.

The Alliance for Reforms, which groups 40 Guatemalan civil society organizations, said barring Aldana "is a clear reprisal for the investigations that the ex-prosecutor made into the president, his family and members of his political party for acts of corruption."

Guatemalan prosecutors have gamely fought corruption via the CICIG since 2007, but fell afoul of the once-supportive Morales last year when he and his family came under investigation.

Morales has cut short its mandate, forcing it to close in September, and none of the other leading candidates have advocated to keep it open.

"The thirst for revenge they have for the work I did as attorney general is evident," Aldana told AFP.

"I did research work especially for the CICIG against powerful criminal structures in Guatemala at all levels, and what is happening now is that these structures want revenge."

She has put her weight behind indigenous candidate Thelma Cabrera, who told AFP the country needs urgent reforms to change what she calls "a rotten state."

Some polls place Roberto Arzu, son of the late former president Alvaro Arzu (1996-2000), in third place.

Tough-talking Arzu warned criminal gangs at a recent election rally of the consequences if he wins.

"I'm going to go and look for each one of those extortionists, gang members, drug dealers in the streets, I'm going to look for them under every last stone and when I find them, I'll give them an opportunity: either they surrender or they die right there."

- Poverty and migration -

The electorate of eight million is also voting in congressional and municipal elections on Sunday. Torres' UNE party is expected to poll strongly but fall short of a majority in the deeply fractured congress.

Poverty is seen as the biggest driver of Guatemalan migration north to the US, which is pressuring the government to do more to quell it.

Nearly 60 percent of the 17 million-plus population live in poverty, despite expected growth of 3.4 percent this year, according to the finance ministry.

Many subsist on migrant remittances, which topped a record $9.3 billion last year.

Official figures estimate that 1.5 million Guatemalans live in the United States, of which only around 400,000 are legal residents.

According to Guatemalan migrant protection officials, 94,482 people were deported by Mexico and the US in 2018, most of them from indigenous communities in the country's poor west.