Preliminary and partial results in Guatemala’s presidential election pointed to the likelihood of a second round of voting but did not indicate who the two candidates would be in an Aug. 20 runoff.
With about half of the votes counted just past midnight Sunday, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal reported that former first lady Sandra Torres for the conservative UNE party and Bernardo Arévalo for the leftist Seed Movement were in the lead, but both were below 20% of the votes.
That is far from the 50% threshold needed to win in the first round. Other candidates were not far enough behind to be ruled out either. Invalid ballots votes from a frustrated electorate led all the candidates early in the tally.
Torres, watching the results from a downtown hotel conference room, told reporters that regardless of her opponent in a runoff, she would emerge victorious. She recognized the high number of invalid ballots and said it indicated the citizens’ lack of confidence in the process.
At the central voting computation center, Arévalo conceded that he was surprised by the early returns. “We’re going to the second round,” he said.
The vote came amid Guatemala’s worrisome drift toward authoritarianism. Voters worried about security, education and jobs hoped that even if the next president did not represent the change element they hoped for, he or she would at least recognize the importance of the country’s institutions and halt the erosion that occurred under President Alejandro Giammattei.
In four years, Guatemala went from an aggressive pursuit of networks of corrupt actors to a relentless persecution of the very prosecutors and judges who propelled it. More than two dozen justice figures have fled the country.
With them in exile, the government then turned its sights to other critical voices, including the media. Earlier this month, a tribunal sentenced newspaper founder José Rubén Zamora to six years in prison for money laundering, in what press freedom groups decried as Giammattei silencing a prominent critic.
As the presidential campaign got underway earlier this year, electoral authorities and courts kept three prominent candidates — from the left and right, but all promising to disrupt the status quo — off the ballot.
Barred from participating, they called for their supporters to cast null ballots.
“It’s the democratic way of rejecting the system,” said Roberto Arzú, who briefly ran a conservative law-and-order campaign before authorities ruled him ineligible for allegedly starting his campaign prematurely.
He said he told visiting foreign election observers that it was nice of them to come watch the vote count, but that “the fraud has already been committed.”
Other popular excluded candidates were leftist Thelma Cabrera from the Indigenous Mam people and Carlos Pineda, a conservative populist running an outsider campaign and leading in the polls until his candidacy was cancelled a month before the vote.
The stronger-than-expected showing by the Seed Movement — a leftist party whose presidential candidate Arévalo had not been among leading candidates in the most recent polls — was the perhaps the biggest surprise early in the count. Arévalo is the son of Juan José Arévalo, one of only two leftist presidents in Guatemala’s democratic era.
Edgar Gutiérrez, a political analyst and former foreign affairs minister for Guatemala, said before the vote that some of those most likely to advance to a second round would promise at least a modicum of improvement over Giammattei.
“This time the problem is to rescue the rule of law and reconstruct institutions, because if we don’t do this, you won’t be able to address all of the underlying problems,” Gutiérrez said.
The problem is not isolated to Guatemala in Central America.
Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega has gone to extremes to quash all opposition, first terrorizing with his security forces, persecuting enemies through targeted legislation, then jailing and exiling any critical voices.
El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele is wildly popular at home, but has concentrated power in the congress and judiciary, weakening the system of checks and balances. More than a year after suspending some fundamental rights, the government has jailed more than 60,000 people accused of ties to the country’s powerful street gangs.
In Honduras, a prominent government watchdog fled the country with her family this month, weeks after her organization published a report expressing concern that President Xiomara Castro has sprinkled relatives throughout the government in key positions.
“Everything that is happening in Central America is this, a disenchantment in democracy, the discrediting of democratic institutions par excellence,” Gutiérrez said. “So the people because of that are leaving Guatemala. They are emigrating because the democracy does not produce results.”
AP videojournalist Fernanda Pesce contributed to this report.
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