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Guatemala's presidential election gets more complicated as voting heads into runoff

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Guatemala's presidential election is getting even more complicated.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Yeah, we've been talking about the Central American country, which is one of the sources of migration to the United States. The country held the first round of a presidential election surrounded by chaos. Last night, officials finalized the results of that first round, leaving two candidates for a runoff. But a court says one of the two candidates is disqualified. So what does that mean?

INSKEEP: NPR's Eyder Peralta joins us. Hey there, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: How did Guatemala get to this point?

PERALTA: The first round of elections was total chaos, as you guys mentioned. Courts disqualified three leading candidates in decisions that were widely viewed as political, and that they were seen as a ploy by the country's political elites to remain in power and assure that they would never be tried for corruption, as they had in the past. And a lot of Guatemalans had lost hope. They viewed most of the nearly two dozen candidates as corrupt, and they were sure that the political elite would get their way, that one of them would win. But the results, Steve, were stunning.

Yes, Sandra Torres, a former first lady who was at one point jailed on corruption charges, came in first. But second came Bernardo Arevalo, who's a reformist who ran on an anti-corruption campaign and who also happens to be the son of Guatemala's first democratically elected president. No one expected that, not even his party. But almost as soon as that happened, the political elite went into overdrive trying to overturn the results. They banded together to pressure the courts to pressure the electoral commission not to certify the votes.

INSKEEP: So the effort to stop this reformist candidate seems to be a source of the chaos. But is it working for the elites?

PERALTA: I mean, remember how I told you that the courts had thrown out promising candidates before the first round of elections? Well, they're trying that again. Prosecutors accused Semilla, the party of the reformist candidate - they accused the party of fraud. And a court ordered electoral authorities to stop him from participating in politics. But then things got more complicated. Just after that court decision, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal certified the results of the first round and said that Bernardo Arevalo, the reformist, would indeed move on to the second round. Arevalo was on CNN en Espanol last night, and he said this was a done deal. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNARDO AREVALO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He said they would not obey a spurious and illegal decision that came from a court known for making political decisions.

INSKEEP: Nonetheless, it is a court. It's made its decision. So where does that leave us for the second round of the election?

PERALTA: That is the question that everyone in Guatemala is asking themselves. Electoral officials were asked if they would listen to the court, and they had no good answers. They said they didn't know if the court order held any sway. So the best answer I can give you is that this election is in limbo. But the bigger picture here is that over the last decade, Guatemala has suffered major blows to what used to be a promising democracy. And just a couple of months ago, there was very little hope that Guatemala's democracy could be saved. But this election has actually become a real test with huge stakes. It's an election that might very well mark the end of Guatemala's democracy, or it could give it another chance.

INSKEEP: NPR's Eyder Peralta, thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.