A presidential candidate election campaign Against Corruption and Impunity in Guatemala on Sunday stunned the political establishment by securing enough votes to advance on the ballot, setting up a showdown with the entrenched elites who have long held power in Central America’s largest country.
Bernardo Arévalo, a law professor with degrees in philosophy and anthropology, obtained 12 percent of the vote, with 98 percent of the vote counted in Sunday’s first round, the electoral authority said on Monday. Sandra Torres, a former first lady considered a standard-bearer for the conservative establishment, finished first, with nearly 16% of the vote.
Despite attracting a relatively small share of the vote, Ms. Torres and Mr. Arévalo were the top two finishers and will face off in a runoff on August 20 because most Guatemalans did not vote, left their ballots blank or he canceled them.
Nearly 40% of voters did not take part in Sunday’s election, while 24% of ballots were left blank or cancelled, meaning nearly two-thirds of the electorate chose not to vote for any candidate.
Mr. Arévalo’s surprise and profound lack of voter participation show a high level of disenchantment with Guatemala’s political system, election analysts said. The government has come under scrutiny for increasingly authoritarian tactics that have targeted independent media and forced into exile dozens of judges and prosecutors focused on fighting corruption.
« We’re seeing how people express their struggle with a system, with a form of politics and government, » said Edie Cux, director of Citizen Action, a nonprofit that was part of an alliance of groups that has supervised the electoral process. « The population calls for reforms. »
Two establishment candidates considered top contenders – Edmond Mulet, a former diplomat, and Zury Ríos, daughter of a former dictator convicted of genocide – finished in fifth and sixth place respectively. Manuel Condé, the candidate of the party of the current president of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, finished third.
Before Sunday’s vote, the nation’s electoral authority had disqualified from the race at least four candidates, including Carlos Pineda, a shifting favorite who had upset the political establishment, and Thelma Cabrera, an organizer seeking to unify indigenous voters of Guatemala long marginalized.
The campaign was dominated by a handful of recurring themes, including the rise of violent crime and economic challenges in a country with some of the highest poverty and inequality rates in Latin America.
Ms Torres, who finished second in the last two presidential elections, has pledged to address the violence by emulating a strategy used in neighboring El Salvador to crack down on gangs.
However, it was Mr. Arévalo, often called Tío Bernie (Uncle Bernie) and the son of a president fondly remembered by many Guatemalans for creating the country social security system in the 1940s, which seemingly came out of nowhere to garner enough support to advance. The leadership of his party, called Semilla, or Seme, is composed largely of urban professionals, such as university professors, engineers and small business owners.
Loren Giordano, 33, a graphic designer and businesswoman in Guatemala City, said she voted for Arévalo because her party promotes measures she supports, including proposed legislation to increase spending on training cancer specialists, equipment and medicines. But the measure did not pass.
Still, Ms Giordano has no faith that Mr Arévalo’s performance on Sunday will produce tangible improvements, even if he wins the presidency.
« I support Semilla and I think they want to make a change, but I don’t think the system will allow for that, » he said. « It seems utopian to think that we will have a candidate who is not involved in corruption and narcopolitics. »
Mr. Arévalo, despite his unexpected performance, will face a tough battle against Ms. Torres in the coming weeks. She has widespread name recognition and is building on her time as first lady, when she was the face of popular anti-poverty programs, including food assistance and cash transfers for poor families.
Ms Torres can also count on the support of an institution unlikely to overturn the status quo, which is represented by Mr Giammattei, who has been prevented by law from seeking re-election for a second term. Some other countries in the region, notably Mexico, have similar laws.
During his tenure, Guatemala went from being a regional model for his anti-corruption efforts in a country that, like many of its neighbors, has undermined democratic norms.
But Mr. Arévalo has also deftly staged an insurrection campaign, mixing meme deployment with serious positioning on issues such as improving public health services. He has repeatedly stated that he would recruit prosecutors and judges who were forced to leave Guatemala as advisers to help him fight corruption.
In a country where the The winning electoral formula often includes rich campaigns, occupying significant airtime on national TV channels, and the blessings of economic elites. Mr. Arévalo had « none of those things, » said Marielos Chang, a political scientist at the Universidad del Valley in Guatemala City.
« No one would have believed it when the presidential campaign started three months ago that Bernardo Arévalo would have enough votes to advance, » he said.