Guatemala City”•More than eight million Guatemalans head to the polls on Sunday as former first lady Sandra Torres and opinion poll front runner Alejandro Giammattei bid to succeed the corruption-tainted Jimmy Morales as president.
Corruption was the main issue leading up to the first round of elections in June”•which Torres topped”•but that has been superseded by a political scandal over a controversial migration deal with the United States.
Neither candidate arrives with a glowing reputation, both having failed in previous bids for the presidency.
The center-left Torres, whose ex-husband Alvaro Colom was president from 2008-12, has been suspected of involvement in corruption before.
Influential businessman Dionisio Gutierrez recently described her as “a questionable politician with a history that should worry any citizen.”
Giammattei, a conservative, has hardly come off any better, with investigative website Nomada branding him as “impulsive… despotic, tyrannical… capricious, vindictive,” among other undesirable traits.
But the 63-year-old, a doctor by profession, scores well on key voter concerns such as the economy, corruption and security, according to Risa Grais-Targow of the Eurasia Group.
Should he win, though, she said he “would face a lose-lose scenario” regarding the migration pact.
One of Morales’s last acts as president was to authorize an agreement with the US administration of Donald Trump designating Guatemala as a “safe third country,” meaning the US can turn away asylum seekers who have passed through the Central American country without seeking refuge there.
The pact”•part of Trump’s campaign to stem migration at his country’s southern border”•has proved highly unpopular in Guatemala, with demonstrators blocking roads and occupying the emblematic University of San Carlos.
In a poll by Prodatos for the Prensa Libre newspaper, 82 percent of respondents opposed it.
Grais-Targow believes the agreement would place “a major strain on the economy” if it overcomes legal challenges and takes effect.
The deal would allow the US to send some Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers who passed through Guatemala back to the poor, crime-stricken Central American country — an influx it is ill-prepared to receive.
Rejecting the migration pact would run the “risk of retaliation from Trump,” Grais-Targow said, after the US leader threatened a travel ban, tariffs and remittance fees if the country didn’t bend to his will.
Remittances from Guatemalans in the US are a crucial part of the economy, reaching a record $9.3 billion last year. That compares to Guatemala’s export revenue of $10.5 billion.
According to the World Bank, remittances account for 12 percent of the country’s GDP.
For whoever wins on Sunday, the agreement will be an albatross around the neck.
Social democrat Torres and Giammattei have avoided committing to strong positions over the migration pact.
The agreement was reached last month despite Guatemala’s constitutional court having granted an injunction blocking Morales from signing the deal.
Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman Jordan Rodas questioned its legality while Amnesty International described it as “cruel and illegal.”
Both candidates have concentrated their campaigns on attacking entrenched corruption and promising to improve education and health care, while investing in poorer areas to reduce poverty and discourage Guatemalans from seeking the “American dream.”
Almost 60 percent of Guatemala’s 17.7 million citizens live in poverty.
Combating gang violence is another major issue, with 2018 statistics putting the murder rate at 22.4 per 100,000 people, one of the highest in the world.
Around half the killings are blamed on drug trafficking and extortion operations carried out by powerful gangs.
Morales, barred by Guatemalan law from seeking a second term, leaves after four years in office with his popularity at rock bottom and the attorney general’s office looking to investigate him for corruption.
Morales’s predecessor Otto Perez was forced to step down in 2015 after being charged with racketeering, illicit enrichment and fraud. He is currently in pre-trial detention.
Morales was elected on the promise of a clean government, and he initially supported the UN’s International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which began its mission in 2006.
But Morales tried to shut it down in January over its decision to investigate him for illegal campaign financing.
Its mission is due to end in September and both presidential candidates have ruled out extending it, although they claim they will create special prosecution agencies to fight corruption.