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Polls close in Guatemalan presidential elections

Johan Ordonez, AFP | Locals vote at a polling station in San Juan Sacatepequez, Guatemala, on June 16, 2019 during general elections.

Voting in Guatemala's presidential election ended on Sunday, following a tumultuous campaign that saw two leading candidates barred from running and the top electoral crimes prosecutor flee the corruption-weary country.

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Just after 6:00 pm (0000 GMT), the Electoral Supreme Court (TSE) announced the close of polls that -- with a few isolated exceptions -- went smoothly.

Former first lady and opinion poll front-runner Sandra Torres, a 63-year-old businesswoman, said after casting her ballot that she was "optimistic, we've worked hard ... I'll be the first woman president."

But her closest rival, Alejandro Giammattei, a doctor from the conservative VAMOS party, denounced an "irregular" electoral process after several candidates were excluded from the race.

Voting had opened at 7:00 am with a crowded field of 19 candidates vying to succeed unpopular outgoing president Jimmy Morales.

He had called on Guatemalans to turn out in droves to vote but when he did so, he was accosted by a young man who blasted him for being "the worst president in Guatemala's history."

Morales, sporting a Guatemala football jersey, kept his calm, replying: "May God bless you, my friend."

TSE president Julio Solorzano said incidents had been reported in at least four departments.

In San Jorge, a town in the eastern Zacapa department where drug traffickers are particularly active, voting had to be suspended due to death threats made against electoral authorities, Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart said.

Solorzano, though, had earlier said he was confident there would be fewer problems in this election than the last one in 2015, where voting was suspended in eight towns due to disturbances and the burning of ballots.

Eight million Guatemalans were eligible to vote and some 40,000 police were on duty for the election, with the military deployed to guard "critical points" including prisons.

Separately, police arrested former general Luis Mendoza in the town of Salama after he'd cast his ballot on Sunday.

He is accused of participating in massacres of indigenous people during Guatemala's civil war from 1960 to 1996.

Gangs, poverty, migrants

Gang violence, poverty and news of the streams of US-bound Guatemalan migrants dominated campaigning in Central America's most populous country.

The country's top anti-corruption campaigner, former attorney general Thelma Aldana, is not among the candidates. She was expected to poll strongly, but was barred from running last month over allegations of irregularities dating from when she was a barnstorming public prosecutor.

Torres -- of the centre-left Unity of Hope party (UNE) -- had over 22 percent of voter preferences in the latest polls, while Giammattei, 63, trailed with just over 11 percent.

However, neither was seen as likely to poll strongly enough on Sunday to avoid a runoff round on August 11.

Analysts believe Torres, a polarizing figure since her years as the Central American country's first lady, would struggle in a second round, given Giammattei's ability to unify the conservative vote against her.

Guatemalans also voted in congressional and municipal elections.

Torres's UNE is expected to poll strongly but fall short of a majority in the deeply fractured 160-seat Congress.

The ex-wife of former president Alvaro Colom, in power from 2008-2012, Torres has pledged health and education reforms as well as jobs to stem the flow of migrants to the US. She has vowed to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage.

Giammattei has vowed to bring back the death penalty to help crush violent gangs, fight poverty to stop migration and end "disgusting" corruption.

Three other candidates are vying for third place, with indigenous contender Thelma Cabrera building momentum as the campaign came to a close.

Monitors from the Organization of American States (OAS) led by former Costa Rican president Luis Guillermo Solis supervised the polls.

Authorities had expressed concern about possible outbreaks of violence in at least 55 municipalities.

Guatemala has one of the world's highest homicide rates: official statistics put it at 22.4 murders per 100,000 people at the end of 2018.

Around half the killings are blamed on drug trafficking and extortion operations carried out by powerful gangs.

Presidents and moguls

Morales, a former TV comedian who beat Torres in a 2015 run-off, is obliged to step down under Guatemala's one-term rules.

His predecessor Otto Perez is in jail for corruption and he himself faces a graft inquiry into illegal campaign funding.

That was instigated by Aldana and the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which has put former presidents, ministers and business moguls in jail.

Aldana -- who fled to the United States after receiving death threats -- told AFP her exclusion was orchestrated by those she put in prison and their allies, who saw her as a "hindrance."

Also barred from running was Zury Rios, daughter of late dictator Efrain Rios Montt, under constitutional rules that prevent his relatives from seeking the presidency.

And this week, as polling stations were being prepared across the country, Oscar Schaad, the electoral court's top prosecutor, said he had been forced to flee the country, citing threats to him and his family.

(AFP)

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