Guatemalans to Elect a New President After a Tumultuous Electoral Season

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) -- Guatemalans voted Sunday to elect a new president and vice president as well as fill all congress seats and hundreds of local posts after one of the most tumultuous electoral seasons in the Central American nation's recent history.

A little more than 9 million people were registered to vote, but many Guatemalans expressed disappointment with their presidential choices after three opposition candidates were excluded by authorities. A large number of null ballots were expected, and experts said it could depress turnout.

With none of the 22 presidential candidates polling near the required 50% threshold for winning outright, a second round of voting on Aug. 20 between the top two finishers was almost certain.

At the Mixed Urban School No. 2, a combined elementary and middle school in Sumpango, voters began lining up outside its muralled wall an hour before voting was scheduled to begin at 7 a.m. local time. The town of about 37,000 sits in the mountains less than an hour west of the capital.

The sun began to clear a light fog and everything appeared orderly as voters entered the school yard where they were directed to the classrooms to cast their ballots.

Marleny Cabrera, a 29-year-old elementary teacher at another school, said she was looking for a change in the direction for the country. "I believe a less stable emphasis has been given to education and health," she said.

"In my case I'm looking for the good for the children of our community and I came to choose Guatemala's well-being," Cabrera said.

Melanie Cay Mutzuma waited to cast a vote in her first election. The 19-year-old merchant said she was nervous and was looking for candidates who would allow her to vote "for something different from all the usual ones."

"We all want a change," she said. "The first thing we have to do is come to vote."

President Alejandro Giammattei, who could not seek re-election, made a push Friday to ease doubts about the electoral process and the widespread complaints, saying the elections are "one more sign that we live in a stable democracy, something that is consolidated with periodic, free and participatory elections."

He assured Guatemalans that his government was striving to assure voting would be carried out peacefully.

Accusations from both inside and outside Guatemala that the vote was unfairly skewed to favor the political establishment rose after several outsider candidates were excluded by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the highest authority on the matter.

Among those barred from the ballot was Thelma Cabrera, a leftist and the only Indigenous woman candidate who allegedly didn't meet requirements to run.

Carlos Pineda, a right-wing populist who was leading in opinion polls, was denied a spot due to alleged irregularities in his nomination. Roberto Arzú, a conservative law-and-order candidate, was barred for allegedly started his campaign too early.

The two leading candidates favored to advance to a runoff vote were Sandra Torres, who divorced social democratic President Álvaro Colom in 2011 while he was in office, and diplomat Edmond Mulet. Zury Ríos Sosa, the daughter of the former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, also was considered a contender.

All three are on the more conservative side of the political spectrum and campaigned promising to install tough security measures like President Nayib Bukele in neighboring El Salvador and promoting conservative family values.

Torres, making her third try to win the presidency, also promised bags of basic food items for those in need and cuts in taxes on basic foods. Mulet said he would give Guatemalans free medicine and support senior citizens and single mothers.

Ríos Sosa campaigned to establish the death penalty, prohibit government posts for those convicted of corruption, protect private property rights and improve the health system.

No leftist party has governed Guatemala in almost 70 years, since two leftist administrations from 1945 to 1954. The second of those was led by President Jacobo Arbenz, who was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup.

The vote comes amid widespread frustration with high crime, poverty and malnutrition -- all factors in pushing tens of thousands of Guatemalans to migrate each year. There is also anger over official corruption and government moves against anti-corruption activists.

"What doesn't allow for free and democratic elections in Guatemala is corruption and impunity," a former Guatemalan attorney general, Thelma Aldana, who sought asylum in the United States under the grounds of political persecution, wrote in a Twitter post.