Guatemala election headed for runoff, former first lady Torres leads

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[June 17, 2019]  By Adriana Barrera and Sofia Menchu

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala's presidential election appeared to be headed for a runoff as partial results on Monday gave center-left candidate Sandra Torres an early lead but far short of the majority needed to avoid a second round against a conservative rival.

With votes tallied from 42% of polling stations, preliminary results from Sunday's election gave former first lady Torres 24.18% of the vote, followed by conservative Alejandro Eduardo Giammattei with 15%, the electoral tribunal said.

The presidential race, which groups 19 candidates, appeared all but certain to be headed for a second round of voting on Aug. 11. The head of the electoral tribunal said late on Sunday it could take approximately two weeks to have definitive results from across the Central American country.

Guatemala's next president will face the daunting challenge of curbing drug gang violence that has ravaged the country and helped spur illegal immigration to the United States, stoking tensions with President Donald Trump.

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.



Nevertheless, Torres also has high negative ratings and may struggle to win a direct run-off if supporters of the many right-of-center candidates unite against her.

In third place with 12.11% was Edmond Mulet, a former U.N. official whose conservative candidacy gained traction in recent weeks.

Torres, who wants to send troops into the streets to fight drug gangs, and use welfare programs to tackle poverty, extended a hand to Guatemala's business elite when voting on Sunday.

"We have to sort out our problems here, and part of the reason for the migration is the lack of jobs, the gap in wages between the United States and here," she said. "We need to work with the business community to revive the economy."

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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Sandra Torres, presidential candidate for the National Unity of Hope (UNE) talks to the media following the first round of presidential election, at the official voting result center in Guatemala City, Guatemala June 17, 2019. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

That prospect has caused alarm in Guatemala, where the legacy of the bloody 1960-1996 civil war still casts a long shadow over the country's development.

COALITION PROSPECTS

Rain fell on Guatemala City during Sunday's vote and results suggested there was considerable discontent among the electorate about the choice of candidates on offer. More than 12% of votes cast were blank or spoiled ballots, the early count showed.

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).

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.

None of the top contenders has unequivocally backed the CICIG, with Torres saying she would consider holding a referendum on whether it should remain in Guatemala.

Fernando Escalante, 41, an industrial design adviser, said the next president must continue the fight against corruption.

"I fear all the progress we've made could be lost, but maybe it's time for us Guatemalans to take on the task," he said.

Questions of legitimacy have dogged the 2019 contest since two of the front-runners were forced out, 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.

(Reporting by Daniel Flynn; editing by Darren Schuettler)

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