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In Essence, Guatemalan Presidential Election Is an Unpopularity Contest

Guatemalan candidate for the Vamos party Alejandro Giammattei gestures to supporters at a campaign rally in Guatemala City, Aug. 4, 2019. Giammattei will face National Union of Hope candidate Sandra Torres.

GUATEMALA CITY — Conservative Alejandro Giammattei could prevail in Guatemala's presidential runoff Sunday if misgivings about his opponent among urban voters outweigh her support in the Central American nation's poor Mayan highlands.

Whoever takes office in January will face a testy relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, who last month strong-armed the outgoing government into signing an agreement that will turn Guatemala into a buffer zone for U.S.-bound migrants.

Giammattei and his center-left rival, former first lady Sandra Torres, both criticized the deal, but Trump's threats of economic sanctions are unlikely to leave either of them much room to maneuver if the next administration does not honor it.

Potentially complicating such tough decisions, neither candidate is hugely popular.

Torres, 63, has high negative ratings in the densely populated urban areas, in part because of her connections to an investigation being conducted into alleged illicit electoral financing in a previous campaign.

Her base is in rural areas such as the highlands where she is remembered for social programs during her former husband's administration.

Turnout is expected to be low and the winner is unlikely to command a strong mandate, especially after electoral authorities excluded other popular candidates from the first round in June — conservative candidate Zury Rios on the ground that close relatives of coup leaders are barred from top office, and anti-corruption crusader Thelma Aldana because of an arrest warrant against her in a corruption case that supporters said was trumped up.

Sliver of the vote

A former prisons director who himself spent a few months behind bars, Giammattei got barely 14 percent of the vote in the first round with a tough-on-crime message, and his Vamos party won just a smattering of seats in Congress.

Giammattei's prison time was linked to an investigation into
extrajudicial killings, but he was later cleared.

Torres' National Unity of Hope had the strongest showing in Congress but also fell well short of a majority.

A CID-Gallup opinion poll of 1,216 voters in conducted July 29-August 5 gave Giammattei the advantage going into the runoff, with 39.5% support, compared with 32.4% for Torres. The poll has a margin of error of 2.8 points.

Another survey by polling firm Tendencias Globales in July gave Torres a lead of 10 percentage points over her rival.

"There's a lot of apathy, mistrust and disinterest among the population," said Jose Carlos Sanabria, a political analyst at the ASIES think tank in Guatemala City. "It's quite hard to anticipate a winner."

Sandra Torres, presidential candidate for the National Unity of Hope, speaks at a campaign rally in Ciudad Peronia, Guatemala, Aug. 3, 2019.
Sandra Torres, presidential candidate for the National Unity of Hope, speaks at a campaign rally in Ciudad Peronia, Guatemala, Aug. 3, 2019.


As well as tussling with Trump, Guatemala's next president will be under pressure to clean up corruption, a top-three issue for voters in a country in which 60% of the 17 million-strong population live in poverty. The other top concerns are crime and unemployment.

Giammattei, 63, a surgeon, has proposed putting an "investment wall" on the border between Guatemala and Mexico to curb migration.

Torres wants to put troops on the streets to fight drug gangs and use welfare programs to attack the poverty.

Outgoing President Jimmy Morales, who is barred from running again, took power pledging to root out the public sector corruption that brought down his predecessor.

Targeted himself

Instead, he fought with the U.N. body leading an anti-corruption drive in Guatemala, and narrowly escaped impeachment after becoming the target of a probe himself.

Both Morales and Torres had to deny allegations made by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) that they violated campaign finance rules in 2015.

Jose Valladares, 42, brushed off the corruption allegations against Torres, saying she had a track record of effective government from her time as first lady in the 2008-11 presidency of her then-husband, Alvaro Colom. She was widely seen as a powerful figure in his administration.

"I think the difference between Sandra and Giammattei is that even if she steals, she'll fulfill her pledges because she's done it in the past," said Valladares, a business administrator. "That lady ruled behind her husband."