Social democrat Bernardo Arevalo swept to victory in Guatemala’s presidential election on Sunday, with his anti-corruption message firing up weary voters.
The 64-year-old sociologist is the son of an ex-president but his win is still a massive upset, defying opinion polls, court battles and attempts to have his party disqualified.
“The people of Guatemala have spoken forcefully,” Arevalo told the media in his first comments after winning by a wide margin. “Enough with so much corruption.”
He added that outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei had called to congratulate him and together they had agreed “to draw up a timetable for the transition plan.”
Arevalo scored 59 percent of the vote, with 95 percent of ballots counted, according to official results from the TSE national election body. His rival, former first lady Sandra Torres — who enjoyed the backing of the incumbent as well as the elite — came second with 36 percent of the vote.
Ambassadors from the United States and European Union have expressed willingness to work with Arevalo, who said the presidents of neighboring Mexico and El Salvador had already offered their congratulations.
However, he is viewed with apprehension by members of the political and business elite that dominate Guatemala.
“Arevalo’s victory means a defeat of the old politics, of the ruling party and those nostalgic for the Cold War. A different era is beginning for our country,” said independent analyst Miguel Angel Sandoval. Thousands of Arevalo’s supporters celebrated with rallies in squares in the capital and cities around the country.
“This triumph represents the defeat of a corrupt system,” said Jorge Mendoza, a 41-year-old sociologist.
Ahead of Sunday’s vote, observers and foreign allies sounded alarm about meddling and efforts to undermine the electoral process, after a top prosecutor tried to have Arevalo disqualified and ordered raids on his party offices and the election body.
The Supreme Court on Friday overturned the order to disqualify Arevalo’s Semilla political party, which had prompted protests. On the campaign trail, Arevalo claimed to be the victim of “political persecution by a corrupt minority that knows it is losing power by the day.”
After a first round marked by low turnout and invalid votes, the TSE reported “historic turnout” at the close of Sunday’s voting, without giving details.
Fed-up voters expressed despair over the poverty, violence and corruption that have gripped the Central American nation, pushing thousands of its citizens to emigrate in search of better lives, many to the United States.
“You can no longer live anywhere, because there is so much crime,” said 66-year-old housewife Maria Rac, an Indigenous Mayan who voted in the town of San Juan Sacatepequez, 30 kilometers (20 miles) west of the capital.
Arevalo, the son of Guatemala’s first democratically elected president, Juan Jose Arevalo, has slammed the political establishment.
“We have been the victims, the prey, of corrupt politicians for years,” Arevalo, a former diplomat, said. “To vote is to say clearly that it is the Guatemalan people who lead this country, not the corrupt.”
Torres, from a traditionally center-left party, had promised welfare programs and various subsidies for the poor. She also won the backing of the right and evangelicals, increased her socially conservative rhetoric and was seen as representing the establishment.
Mayan farmer Brigido Chavix, 57, said he did not support Arevalo, “but I voted for him because we want new faces.” “That lady (Torres) has already been around for a long time talking about policies, policies, and she has never carried them out.”
Torres, the ex-wife of late leftist president Alvaro Colom, denounced “some irregularities” during Sunday’s voting, without giving evidence. Before the election, she raised doubts about the objectivity of the country’s electoral board, accusing it of leaning toward Arevalo’s party.
The prosecutor who has targeted Arevalo, Rafael Curruchiche — sanctioned by Washington for corruption — has said he did not rule out more raids and possible arrests after the elections.
Corrupt’ taken control
Arevalo will replace unpopular right-wing president Giammattei, who is constitutionally limited to one term. Under Giammattei, several prosecutors fighting graft have been arrested or forced into exile. He had also cracked down on critical journalists.
The corrupt “have progressively taken control of all state institutions,” said former attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz — who is now in Costa Rica.
Guatemala has some of the worst poverty, malnutrition and child mortality rates in Latin America, according to the World Bank. The murder rate is one of the highest in the world, with many killings attributed to gang violence related to drug trafficking.