GUATEMALA CITY: Guatemalans headed to the polls on Sunday in a hotly contested presidential election 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.
Former first lady Sandra Torres is tipped to win the first round but is expected to fall short of the 50% plus one vote needed for an outright victory in the election, the fairness of which has come under international scrutiny.
She is up against more than 20 other candidates, including Edmond Mulet, a career diplomat, and Zury Rios, daughter of the late dictator Efrain Rios Montt.
Young voters headed to the polls for the first time, including a 19-year-old student, Maximo Santacruz, who says he relied on social media to decide who to vote for.
“All the young people right now will have a role in politics in Guatemala in 20 years time … I got informed mainly via Tik Tok,” he said.
Julio Valenzuela, a 40-year-old audio producer, said he hopes campaign promises will be kept and the new leader can build a brighter future.
“What we Guatemalans hope is that everything they have promised is fulfilled … We want them (politicians) to deliver and not only with the urban area but also in the interior,” he said as he cast his vote.
The race to succeed conservative president Alejandro Giammattei, who is limited by law to one term, has been overshadowed by a court ruling to block four candidates from the ballot including early front-runner, businessman Carlos Pineda.
The US and the EU criticised the exclusion of Pineda, who called the decision “electoral fraud.”
“We do not see a process that is governed by international standards, but rather one where arbitrary criteria are used,” said Carolina Jimenez, president of think tank Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “That is tremendously serious.”
Meanwhile, unrest in the town of San Jose del Golfo, near the capital, meant elections there were called off, Supreme Electoral Tribunal official Irma Palencia said at a press conference. Elections there will instead be held in August.
In addition to electing the president and vice-president, 9.3 million eligible voters also choose a new Congress, hundreds of mayors and 20 members of the Central American Parliament.
Polls opened at 7.00am and will close at 6.00pm. Preliminary results are expected from 9.30pm local time on Sunday.
Stakes in the election are high, given deteriorating standards of transparency and human rights in recent years, as well as ongoing poverty, corruption and violence.
“(The next) four years won’t allow time to undo how poorly managed the government has been for so many years,” said Andres Nolasco, a 25-year-old accountant from Guatemala City. “But it is possible to start taking a different path.”
Political analysts predict a fragmented Congress will limit any of the candidates from enabling real change.
Polls currently predict that Torres, the ex-wife of late president Alvaro Colom (2008-2012), will likely lose a head-to-head runoff given her lack of popularity in the capital Guatemala City, home to a high percentage of the electorate.
This is the 67-year-old politician’s third run for president. She finished second in the previous two races.