Campaign chaos sows disillusion ahead of Guatemala vote

The road to Sunday's presidential election in Guatemala has been a chaotic flurry of court rulings and shenanigans, illegal party-switching and allegations of malfeasance that torpedoed the candidacies of two of the top three candidates.

Observers say the result is widespread disillusion and distrust in the electoral process in this small Central American country that has seen hundreds of thousands flee poverty and gang violence in recent years in a bid for a new life in the United States.

Polls favor former first lady Sandra Torres of the National Unity and Hope party to finish first, but with 19 candidates in the race it is unlikely she will win the absolute majority necessary to avoid a runoff.

Torres, 64, is a businesswoman who was seen as influencing decision-making during the 2008-2012 government of her then-husband, Álvaro Colom. She served as coordinator of the Council on Social Cohesion, an entity that was replaced by the Ministry of Social Development under Colom's successor.

But she has not been immune to the scandals that have hit other campaigns, with prosecutors opening an investigation into alleged illicit campaign financing involving her party. The case has not moved forward because candidates are protected from prosecution, and a judge denied a request to have that lifted for Torres, citing a law that targets violence against women.

Three other candidates were kicked off the ballot amid graft investigations, most notably former Chief Prosecutor Thelma Aldana. She gained international attention for leading anti-corruption investigations in tandem with a U.N. commission. Another candidate was barred from running based on a law that prohibits the election of relatives of former leaders.

Aldana's supporters see her removal as a signal that corrupt elites feared the prospect of her presidency.

Observers, and voters themselves, say the result of the chaotic campaign has been near universal cynicism.

"I don't trust any of them," said Paula Cojolón, a 58-year-old domestic worker.

Among the candidates seeking to make it through to an Aug. 11 runoff are Alejandro Giammattei, a four-time presidential candidate and ex-prisons director; Roberto Arzú, a businessman and son of a former president; Edmond Mulet, a former congressman, ambassador to the U.S. and U.N. official; and Thelma Cabrera, the only indigenous woman in the race, and the lone top five candidate who is not running with a conservative party.

Guatemalans are predominantly concerned about unemployment, violence, corruption, rising costs of living and the shoddy state of the country's highways. Outgoing President Jimmy Morales has not found answers during his four-year administration, and there's plenty of skepticism that anyone on the ballot will do any better.

"If I don't have work, I don't eat. Nobody helps," Cojolón said. "The candidates, no, they all offer things but nobody follows through."

Three of the last four elected presidents — including Colom, Torres' ex-husband — have been arrested post-presidency on charges of corruption. Graft allegations have also targeted President Morales and his inner circle, though he denies wrongdoing and has been protected from prosecution due to his immunity while in office.

A recent poll from CID UpGallup Latinoamerica found that nearly a third of Guatemalan adults surveyed believed that whatever the outcome, it will be the result of fraud, while another 20% said the election's legitimacy would be suspect because so many candidates were kept from running.

"The legitimacy of and confidence in the process has been seriously harmed," political analyst Phillip Chicola said.

The surging migration north from Guatemala and other Central American countries has not emerged as a major campaign issue, despite the attention it's gotten from U.S. President Donald Trump and Mexico, which is under pressure from Washington to stem the flow.

The election Sunday will be the first time that Guatemalans can cast ballots from abroad: At least 60,000 are eligible in Los Angeles, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C., all home to large numbers of Guatemalan emigres.