Guatemalans vote for new president amid corruption and exclusion concerns

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Guatemalans went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president and vice president as well as fill all congressional seats and hundreds of local posts after one of the most tumultuous electoral seasons in the Central American nation’s recent history.

The presidential race was dominated by concerns over corruption, the exclusion of a leading candidate, and the cost of living, with the vote set to result in a second-round run-off in August.

Many Guatemalans expressed disappointment with their presidential choices after three opposition candidates were excluded by the authorities. A large number of null ballots were expected, and experts said it could depress turnout.

Former first lady Sandra Torres, from the National Unity of Hope (UNE) party, was tipped to win the first round but was expected to fall short of the 50 percent plus one vote needed for an outright victory in the contest, the fairness of which has come under international scrutiny.

The 67-year-old businesswoman has unsuccessfully sought the presidency twice before. She is allied with the current legislature’s governing Vamos (Let’s Go) party. Torres and her party faced accusations of corruption and illegal campaign financing. She has denied the accusations and campaigned on a promise to bolster social programs to address poverty throughout the country.

She was up against more than 20 other candidates, including Edmond Mulet, a career diplomat, and Zury Rios, daughter of the late dictator Efrain Rios Montt.

Mulet, 72, with the centrist Cabal (Spot On) party, campaigned on pledges to bolster the economy and invest in healthcare, education, and security. His campaign was beset by accusations he was involved in an illegal child adoption operation in the 1980s, when thousands of infants and children were taken from their families and put up for adoption abroad. Mulet has adamantly denied having any part in the scheme.

Rios, 55, whose Valor (Valour) party was also part of the previous governing legislative coalition, was allowed to compete in the elections after the Constitutional Court ruled in May that a rule barring the family members of those who took power in a coup from running for office should not apply to her. She campaigned on a tough-on-crime agenda.

The race to succeed conservative President Alejandro Giammattei, who is limited by law to one term, was overshadowed by a court ruling to block four candidates from the ballot including the early frontrunner, businessman Carlos Pineda.

Voting appeared orderly across the country despite some reports of violence and intimidation. President Giammattei made a push Friday to ease doubts about the electoral process and assure Guatemalans that his government was striving to assure voting would be carried out peacefully.

He said the elections were “one more sign that we live in a stable democracy, something that is consolidated with periodic, free and participatory elections.”

The official results are expected to be announced later this week. The second round of voting is scheduled for Aug. 20 between the top two finishers.

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