Guatemala’s Former Prisons Director Wins Presidential Election: Electoral Tribunal

August 12, 2019 Updated: August 12, 2019

GUATEMALA CITY—Guatemala’s Electoral Tribunal on Aug. 11 declared center-right businessman Alejandro Giammattei of the Vamos party winner of the presidential election over his leftist social-democrat opponent, former first lady Sandra Torres.

Giammattei claimed victory shortly after polling stations closed, saying it would be an honor to serve as president of the Central American country.

The next president is likely to face a major challenge on taking office in January after the country signed an unpopular deal with Washington to act as a buffer against illegal immigration under pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump.

With returns from three-quarters of the polling stations counted, Giammattei had secured more than 59 percent of the vote, while Torres had won just over 40 percent, according to the tally posted on the website of the country’s electoral tribunal.

Alejandro Giammattei
Alejandro Giammattei, presidential candidate for the “Vamos” political party speaks at his campaign headquarters in Guatemala City, Guatemala, on Aug. 11, 2019. (Jose Cabezas/Reuters)

Faced with economic sanctions if it said no, the administration of outgoing President Jimmy Morales reached an accord with the Trump administration in late July to make Guatemala a so-called safe third country for migrants. Both Giammattei and Torres criticized the deal.

Giammattei called the accord “bad news” because Guatemala is not ready to cope with a potential jump in asylum-seekers.

The agreement would require Hondurans and Salvadorans to apply for asylum in Guatemala rather than the United States. It also foresees granting U.S. visas to some Guatemalan workers.

The next president will inherit a country with a 60 percent poverty rate, widespread crime and unemployment, which have led hundreds of thousands of people to migrate north.

According to the Wall Street Journal, a recent poll showed that Giammattei has a good reputation among 73 percent of Guatemalans. He enjoys wide support in the business community and among social conservatives for his tough stance against corruption and street gangs, and experience as the country’s prisons director.

“That’s in part because, unlike many Guatemalan politicians in recent times, he has not been involved in a graft scandal,” Javier Brolo, a political analyst at the private Francisco Marroquín University, said.

Many Guatemalans are fed up with the political class after investigations by the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations anti-corruption body, led to the arrest of then-President Otto Perez in 2015, and then threatened to unseat his successor Morales, a former TV comedian.

Morales narrowly escaped impeachment, and the CICIG also went after Torres for suspected campaign finance irregularities. As a candidate, she is currently immune from prosecution.

Presidential candidate Sandra Torres
Presidential candidate Sandra Torres, of the National Unity of Hope (UNE) political party, casts her vote at a polling station during the presidential election second round run-off vote in Guatemala City, Guatemala, Aug. 11, 2019. (Luis Echeverria/Reuters)

Both candidates have vowed to fight corruption—albeit without “foreign interference,” an apparent nod to the CICIG.

Giammattei pledged to run an honest government as he voted.

“We’ll battle corruption from the very first day,” he said.

Morales, who terminated the CICIG’s mandate effective as of September, is barred by law from standing again. But the migration deal he authorized could create a legacy.

Risa Grais-Targow, Latin America director at consultancy Eurasia Group, said while the accord struck with Trump risks a popular backlash, not honoring it could expose Guatemala to U.S. taxes on remittances or tariffs on its goods.

“The next president faces a lose-lose situation when it comes to managing the deal with the United States,” she said. “That is the biggest challenge the incoming president faces.”

A poll published this week by Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre showed more than eight out of 10 respondents rejected the idea of the country accepting foreign migrants seeking asylum.

Giammattei promised to erect an “investment wall” on the border between Guatemala and Mexico to curb migration, and has proposed bringing back the death penalty.

By Sofia Menchu and Diego Oré. Epoch Times staff contributed to this report.

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