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

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

By CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN and SONIA PÉREZ D. (Associated Press)

VILLA NUEVA, Guatemala (AP) — After a tumultuous campaign, Guatemalans cast their ballots Sunday in a runoff presidential election that pits an anti-corruption advocate against a former first lady seen as an ally to the outgoing government.

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 to the U.S. in recent years.

Roxana Abigail González voted for Arévalo on Sunday, hoping that he would make a difference for her future. “I think he could be a good president,” she said.

The 25-year-old student lives in Villa Nueva, the gritty hillside suburb above the capital. Thieves and gangs that extort businesses and kill those who don’t pay roam its cratered streets. González said she has had the possessions she carried stolen multiple times, making her nervous to venture out alone.

Among her long list of hopes for Guatemala’s next government are more security, jobs for the poor families whose children she sees begging in the streets and more hospitals.

González wants to continue on to college and study business administration. She loves to cook and dreams of having her own restaurant one day, but the threat of extortion is so great that she’s unsure if it’s possible. “People can’t keep a business,” she said.

Earlier Sunday, residents of Santo Domingo Xenacoj lined up to vote at the local primary school in the mountains about an hour west of the capital. 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.”

Mario Monzon, 61, voted Sunday because he “wants to see a more developed country with more work,” he said after casting his ballot in Santo Domingo Xenacoj. He works in a water treatment laboratory in the capital, but says lots of people study but can’t find jobs.

At a school in the center of Guatemala City, about a dozen people waited for polls to open. “I got up very early. I’m motivated by the right I have to vote,” said Sergio Antonlín, a 62-year-old vendor. “What I hope is that something positive for the country comes out of this, we’re tired of the old corrupt politics.”

Clara Top, a 43-year-old seamstress in town, said she voted for Torres, because she has promised to give poor families monthly bags of food staples. “She helps the most needy,” Top said.

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.

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.”

Delmi Espino, a 46-year-old teacher, came to vote in Guatemala City with her mother. “It’s incredible how we managed to get to this point after everything that has happened in the electoral process,” she said. “How’s it possible that now there’s an investigation of one of the two parties?”

“It doesn’t matter that we need security, education or health, if you don’t fight corruption,” she said. “We want a president who cares about the country.”

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Pérez D. reported from Guatemala City.