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Sandra Torres, presidential candidate for the National Unity of Hope (UNE) talks to the media following the first round of...

Former first lady leads vote count in Guatemala presidential election

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — A former first lady led early Monday in voting counting from Guatemala’s presidential election, although a runoff ballot appeared likely to determine the next leader of this Central American nation where tens of thousands have fled poverty and gang violence this year to seek a new life in the United States.

With votes tallied from just over a third of polling centers by late Sunday, Sandra Torres had 24% of the vote, followed by four-time presidential candidate Alejandro Giammattei with 15%. The early results were in line with expectations.

Businessman Roberto Arzú, diplomat Edmond Auguste Mulet Lesieur and indigenous human rights advocate Thelma Cabrera rounded out the top-five candidates for the presidency.

A candidate would need more than 50% of votes to win the first round outright The runoff election likely would take place in August. Presidents are limited to a single, four-year term.

The next president will take office in January needing to stem growing violence, poverty and outward migration. An estimated 1 percent of Guatemala’s population of some 16 million people has left the country this year.

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Guatemalans are also clamoring for a crackdown on corruption: Three of the last four elected presidents have been arrested after their terms of office on charges of corruption.

Torres, 64, is a businesswoman who gained national prominence during the 2008-2012 government of her then husband, Álvaro Colom, who is among the former leaders to have been accused of corruption. The couple divorced in 2011.

“There is a belief that instead of advancing in these four years of government, we’ve gone backward,” said Marco René Cuellar, 39, the first to vote Sunday at the Mixed Rural School in the municipality of Santa Catarina Pinula. “We’ve lost our way as a country, but we should not lose faith in the democratic process we have.”

More than 8.1 million citizens were eligible to vote for the vice president, congressional representatives and mayors.

The election marked the first time that Guatemalans could cast ballots from abroad. At least 60,000 were eligible to vote in Los Angeles, New York, Maryland and Washington, all home to large numbers of Guatemalan emigres.

On Sunday, municipal officials and police stood guard as many waited in line to cast their ballots in an election dinged by threats of violence and possible fraud.

To the east of the capital, in the Zacapa department, voting stations didn’t open in the San Jorge municipality after organizers were threatened with violence. More than 7,000 people were unable to cast votes there. Voting was also called off in Esquipulas Palo Gordo, near the border with Mexico in the San Marcos department, amid accusations of vote-buying.

The attorney general’s office launched an investigation after a voter posted a video to social media showing how her ballot was allegedly already marked for Torres.

The campaign season was marked by a chaotic flurry of court rulings, shenanigans, illegal party-switching and allegations of malfeasance that torpedoed the runs of two of the three front-runners, including Chief Prosecutor Thelma Aldana.

Aldana gained international renown for leading crusading anti-corruption investigations in tandem with a U.N.-backed anti-graft commission operating in Guatemala, but was booted from the race on the grounds that she lacked a document certifying that she didn’t have any outstanding accounts from her time overseeing a public budget as prosecutor.

Outgoing President Jimmy Morales, who was barred from seeking re-election, took office in 2016 promising to root out corruption after his predecessor was brought down by a probe led by the U.N.’s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG. But Morales soon became a target of CICIG himself for alleged campaign finance violations, starting a bitter dispute with the agency in which he terminated its mandate.

A recent poll from CID Gallup Latinoamerica found that nearly a third of Guatemalan adults surveyed believed the election would be plagued by fraud. Twenty percent said the election’s legitimacy would be suspect because so many candidates were kept from running.

Unemployment, violence, corruption, rising costs of living and the shoddy state of the country’s highways are among top concerns for the country’s electorate.

But Fernando Barrillas, 44-year-old Guatemalan citizen, said surging migration was also an issue for him.

“As long as the root causes that propel migration are not addressed, which are poverty and inequality, we will continue to remain without the best men and women, young people who they are the engine of the country,” he said.