Guatemalans head to the polls to elect president amid tensions over migration, violence

Guatemalans on Sunday will vote for a new president, who will face the challenge of curbing drug gang violence that has convulsed the country and helped spur illegal immigration to the United States, fueling tensions with President Donald Trump.

Nineteen candidates will compete in the election, which is expected to yield no outright winner, forcing the top two vote getters to face off in a second round on Aug. 11.

Former first lady Sandra Torres, of the center-left UNE party, has led the race to succeed President Jimmy Morales, a conservative former television host whose term has been blighted by accusations of corruption made by U.N.-backed investigators.

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Torres, who has promised to send troops onto the streets to fight drug gangs, and to tackle poverty with welfare programs, has support of around 20 percent of the electorate, according to polls.

Her closest rivals, trailing by a few percentage points, are conservatives Alejandro Giammattei, who is running in his fourth campaign, and Edmond Mulet, a former United Nations official whose candidacy has increasingly gained traction in the run-up to the vote.

“I want to see education improving, more jobs and for security to get better, because we live in a very unsafe country. And for politicians and lawmakers to stop stealing,” said John Estrada, 24, a tattoo artist in Guatemala City.

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Rampant violence and widespread discontent over corruption and impunity in the country of 17 million have prompted more and more Guatemalans to flee for the United States.

The surge of departures has undermined Trump‘s pledge to curb illegal immigration, and the U.S. president has responded by threatening to cut U.S. aid to Central America.

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That prospect has caused alarm in Guatemala, where the legacy of the bloody 1960-1996 civil war continues to cast a long shadow over the country’s development.

Coalition prospects

To avoid a run-off, one of the candidates would need to win more than 50 percent of the vote, a result pollsters deem unlikely. The outcome of the election will likely depend on candidates’ ability to build a coalition for the second round.

In research report on Friday, Eurasia Group said Torres would struggle to win a run-off, given her high rejection rate and the ability of her likely opponent to unify the conservative vote and secure the support of the country’s powerful elites.

Morales, who is barred by law from seeking re-election, took office in 2016 vowing to root out corruption after his predecessor was brought down by a probe led by the U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

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Instead, Morales himself became a target of a CICIG probe into allegations of campaign finance wrongdoing and was subject to impeachment proceedings in 2017. He survived the attempt to oust him, and then engaged in a bitter dispute with the CICIG before finally terminating its mandate, effective from September.

Questions of legitimacy have dogged the 2019 contest since two of the front-runners were forced out in the final weeks, including Thelma Aldana, a former attorney general who tried to impeach Morales with the CICIG. The government accused Aldana of corruption, leading to her exclusion last month.

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Allegations of shady dealings have permeated the election, which has been fought out amid intensifying efforts by Trump to turn Mexico and Guatemala into buffer zones to keep undocumented migrants out of the United States.

Presidential hopeful Mario Estrada and congressional candidate Julio Jose Rosales were arrested during the campaign and charged with having links to Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel.

Drug traffickers allegedly financed their campaigns in return for help transporting cocaine and heroin to the United States.

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