Former first lady Torres takes lead in Guatemala election
By Adriana Barrera and Sofia Menchu
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Centre-left candidate Sandra Torres took an early lead in Guatemala's presidential election on Sunday but was well short of an outright majority and will likely face a major test from a conservative challenger in a run-off.
Preliminary results from the electoral tribunal gave former first lady Torres 24.20% of the vote, followed by conservative Alejandro Eduardo Giammattei with 15.20%, based on returns from 29% of polling stations.
Nineteen candidates took part in the election that is all but certain to be decided in a second round of voting between the top two contenders on Aug. 11.
The 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 centre-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-centre candidates unite against her.
In third place with 12.42% 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.
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.
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.
Consultancy Eurasia Group said on Friday that Torres would struggle to win a run-off, given her high negative ratings and the ability of her likely opponent to unify conservative voters and secure support from the country's powerful elites.
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 Sofia Menchu and Adriana Barrera; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Nick Zieminski and Peter Cooney)