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Guatemalans vote amid a widespread sense of uncertainty and disillusionment

Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

MEXICO CITY -- Guatemalans went to the polls Sunday to elect a new president, congressmen and other lawmakers amid widespread disenchantment with a corruption-plagued political system long unresponsive to poverty and violence.

Voters began arriving early Sunday at polling places across this Central American nation. There were scattered reports of election irregularities.

"I feel apathetic about this election," said Lisbeth Laines, 30, a secretary who cast her ballot here in the capital. "No matter who wins, it feels like we can expect much of the same."

Preelection debate here has focused on legal challenges to various candidates -- rather than such key issues as poverty, a major driving force behind the ongoing exodus of Guatemalans and other Central Americans in near-record numbers toward the U.S. border via Mexico.

Many Guatemalans link the lack of economic opportunity with entrenched corruption among the country's political elites. The large-scale emigration of Guatemalans to the United States has not figured prominently in preelection discussions -- despite efforts by the Trump administration to prod Guatemala and other Central American nations to do more to stem the flow.

Before Sunday's vote, authorities disqualified five candidates, including Thelma Aldana, a crusading ex-prosecutor whose efforts as a former attorney general investigating graft helped send an ex-president and other allegedly crooked lawmakers to jail. She worked in tandem with a United Nations-backed anti-corruption panel that now faces a September deadline to leave Guatemala.

In blocking Aldana from the ballot, electoral authorities cited financial irregularities from her stint as attorney general. But Aldana and her supporters deny any wrongdoing and say she was barred to thwart future anti-corruption inquiries.

Aldana has fled to El Salvador since receiving death threats, the Guatemalan media has reported.

Favored among the 19 remaining presidential candidates was an ex-first lady, Sandra Torres, of the National Unity and Hope party, who has denied allegations of illicit campaign financing from a previous presidential run four years ago.

However, no candidate is projected to win a majority and the top two finishers are expected to compete in a runoff election in August.

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"Immigration is a problem that transcends borders," Torres said on Sunday, as reporters surrounded her at a voting place. "We have to work on the causes of migration, which are violence, poverty, delinquency, lack of political stability."

Outgoing President Jimmy Morales, whose administration has been plagued by corruption allegations, is not on the ballot. Guatemalan law bans presidential reelection.

While voting on Sunday, Morales lamented the ongoing migration of Guatemalans, particularly younger citizens.

"Guatemala also cannot keep on suffering this departure of all this human talent ... all this youth that leaves, and homes that disintegrate," Morales said. "It is necessary to attend to these needs within the country."

Special correspondent Claudia Palacios in Guatemala City and Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

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