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Former First Lady Leads In 1st Round Of Voting In Guatemala Presidential Election

Sandra Torres, former first lady and presidential candidate for the National Unity of Hope (Union Nacional de la Esperanza) party (center), displays an inked finger after voting during presidential elections in Guatemala City on Sunday.
James Rodriguez
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sandra Torres, former first lady and presidential candidate for the National Unity of Hope (Union Nacional de la Esperanza) party (center), displays an inked finger after voting during presidential elections in Guatemala City on Sunday.

A former Guatemalan firstlady is the front-runner following Sunday's presidential election in the Central American country, where the electorate is hoping to find a candidate who can tackle its high unemployment, violence and corruption.

Sandra Torres, a 64-year-old businesswoman, was leading the polls with nearly 26% of the vote on Monday.Four-time presidential candidate Alejandro Giammattei, 63, a former director of the country's prison system, followed in second with just shy of 14%, according to Guatemala's electoral tribunal.

Neither candidate drew enough votes to fend off a runoff election on August 11. They needed more than 50% of votes to win outright.

Nearly 20 candidates from different parties were vying to replace incumbent Jimmy Morales, a former television comedian whose term ends in January.

Torres, who belongs to the centristNational Unity of Hope (Union Nacional de la Esperanza) party,addressed her supporters on Monday saying she plans to bring the country together and fight corruption.

"The country needs unity: to unite the countryside with the city, to unite the workers with the business community, and also in civil society, in all sectors," she said, according to The Guardian.

Giammattei of the center-right Vamos party also held a post-voting rally Monday, touching on many of the same issues, "but added that on immigration he plans to work closely with Mexico to raise living standards in communities near their shared border, which are the country's poorest," the Associated Press reported.

Businessman Robert Arzú, Edmond Auguste Mulet Lesieur, a former chief of staff to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Thelma Cabrera, an indigenous rights campaigner, were also in the top rung of vote-getters.

More than 8 million citizens are eligible to vote and officials said the large number of candidates was slowing the count. This election was also the first in which Guatemalans who live abroad could cast ballots.

The campaign lasted three months, with Torres, running on a platform of investment in health, education and agriculture, maintaining her front-runner status throughout.

Torres was married to former President Álvaro Colom, who served from 2008 to 2012 and has been accused of corruption, but the couple divorced in 2011. Despite their split, Torres has been dogged by allegations of her own illegal campaign financing.

As part of an anti-corruption drive by current President Morales, Colom was arrested last year. He is awaiting trial. Morales himself has also become a target of the anti-corruption drive.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, "Giammettei, faces corruption questions over his time as head of the country's prisons."

The AP notes that, "The campaign season was marked by a chaotic flurry of court rulings, shenanigans, illegal party-switching and allegations of malfeasance ..."

Whoever becomes president will face not only the difficult task of alleviating poverty, corruption and violence, but also of handling increasingly complex relations with the U.S. The Trump administration has pressured Guatemala to become a "safe third country" to divert refugees from neighboring El Salvador and Honduras who might otherwise seek asylum in the U.S. via Mexico.

According to Voice of America, "Under the terms of the proposed deal, migrants fleeing persecution in El Salvador and Honduras would be forced to request asylum in Guatemala, a gateway to Mexico and the United States. In all but rare exceptions, those migrants who chose to continue north to the United States without first exploring their chances in Guatemala would be returned to their home countries by U.S. immigration forces."

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.