Guatemalans head to the polls, hoping their new leader will bring real change

The country has struggled with poverty and violence

After a tumultuous campaign, Guatemalans began voting Sunday to elect a new president, hoping that the country’s next leader will provide relief from rising prices and get a handle on crime and corruption.

The two candidates offer starkly different paths forward. Former first lady Sandra Torres became an ally of outgoing, deeply unpopular President Alejandro Giammattei in her third bid for the presidency. Her opponent, Bernardo Arévalo, with the progressive Seed Movement, rode a wave of popular resentment toward politics to his surprise spot in the runoff.

Central America’s most populous country and the region’s largest economy continues to struggle with widespread poverty and violence that have driven hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans to emigrate in recent years.

Early on Sunday, residents of Santo Domingo Xenacoj lined up to vote at the local primary school. The Volcano of Fire puffed in the distance as men in jackets and women in traditional embroidered blouses wrapped in shawls against the chill came out to vote.

Juan Xocoxi Chocoyo, a 60-year-old farmer and driver, was the first in line. He said he shared his vote only with God, but that the issues weighing on his mind as he entered the voting booth were the lack of work and the rising cost of everyday products.

He is unemployed and subsists on the corn and beans he grows. He used to grow a variety of vegetables, but it became too expensive.

“There's no work, (the cost) of everything went up,” he said. “Sometimes there's no work and there are poor who go hungry.”

The first round of voting on June 25 went relatively smoothly until results showed Arévalo had landed an unexpected spot in the runoff. The fact that the preliminary results were dragged into Guatemala’s co-opted justice system has raised anxiety among many Guatemalans that voters will not have the final word Sunday.

Guatemala's Attorney General’s Office is investigating Arévalo’s party for allegedly gathering fraudulent signatures for its registration years earlier. The party has dismissed the accusations as politically motivated.

Torres, in her closing campaign event Friday in Guatemala City’s sprawling central market, suggested she would not accept a result that didn’t go her way. “We’re going to defend vote by vote because today democracy is at risk (and) because they want to steal the elections,” she said.

Arévalo, a lawmaker and former diplomat, is the son of former President Juan José Arévalo, the first leftist president of Guatemala’s democratic era. The elder Arévalo is still revered by many for establishing fundamental elements of Guatemalan society such as social security and labor regulations.

But Torres has painted her opponent as a radical leftist who threatens Guatemalans’ conservative values on issues including sexual identity and abortion.

“We’re not going to let them influence our children with strange and foreign ideologies,” she said Friday.

Having run largely populist campaigns, capitalizing on her oversight of the government’s social programs during the presidency of her then-husband Álvaro Colom, Torres drifted sharply rightward this time, abandoning the social democratic history of her National Unity of Hope party and launching unsubstantiated attacks at Arévalo that she herself suffered during earlier failed campaigns.

Torres picked the capital's main market as the local heart of her populist pitch, starting and ending her campaign in this hub of commerce. But some vendors there said they see a greater chance for change in Arévalo.

One of them is Enrique Velásquez, who sells thread, yarn and other supplies.

The 29-year-old is part of a youth boom in a country where the average age is 26, compared to 38 in the United States. He hopes an Arévalo administration would generate more confidence in the country’s politics and make real changes rather than just promises.

As for Torres’ attempts to paint Arévalo as a threat to Guatemalan families, Velásquez said that she is really only talking about defending one kind of family, the one with a mother, a father and children. But, he added, there are single mothers and single fathers, grandparents raising grandchildren, divorcees and widows from the country’s violence. “They wouldn’t take those people into account."

Gays, lesbians and transgender people aren’t trying to influence anyone’s children, he went on. “Times have changed.”

Arévalo told supporters in the capital’s central plaza Wednesday night that misinformation and fearmongering, “is the work of those who don’t want Guatemala to change.”


Pérez D. reported from Guatemala City.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us