A former Guatemalan first lady leads early counting in Sunday's presidential election in the Central American country, where the electorate is hoping to find a candidate who can tackle its high unemployment, violence and corruption.
Sandra Torres, a 64-year-old businesswoman, was leading with 24% of the vote, followed by four-time presidential candidate Alejandro Giammattei, 63, a former director of the country's prison system, with 15%, according to The Associated Press. A runoff election is expected.
Torres of the centrist National Unity of Hope (Union Nacional de la Esperanza) party and Giammattei of the center-right Vamos party leads a field of nearly 20 candidates vying to replace incumbent Jimmy Morales, a former television comedian whose term ends in January.
Businessman Robert Arzú, Edmond Auguste Mulet Lesieur, a former chief of staff to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Thelma Cabrera, an indigenous rights campaigner, were also in the top rung of vote-getters.
More than 8 million citizens are eligible to vote and officials said the large number of candidates was slowing the count. This election was also the first in which Guatemalans who live abroad could cast ballots.
The campaign lasted three months, with Torres, running on a platform of investment in health, education and agriculture, maintaining her front-runner status throughout.
Torres was married to former President Álvaro Colom, who served from 2008 to 2012, but the couple divorced in 2011.
As part of an anti-corruption drive by current President Morales, Colom was arrested last year. He is awaiting trial. Morales himself has also become a target of the anti-corruption drive.
The AP notes that, "The campaign season was marked by a chaotic flurry of court rulings, shenanigans, illegal party-switching and allegations of malfeasance ..."
Whoever becomes president will face not only the difficult task of alleviating poverty, corruption and violence, but also of handling increasingly complex relations with the U.S. The Trump administration has pressured Guatemala to become a "safe third country" to divert refugees from neighboring El Salvador and Honduras who might otherwise seek asylum in the U.S. via Mexico.
According to Voice of America, "Under the terms of the proposed deal, migrants fleeing persecution in El Salvador and Honduras would be forced to request asylum in Guatemala, a gateway to Mexico and the United States. In all but rare exceptions, those migrants who chose to continue north to the United States without first exploring their chances in Guatemala would be returned to their home countries by U.S. immigration forces."