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Guatemala’s Arevalo, casting election as turning point, eyes top prize


By Brendan O’Boyle

(Reuters) – Bernardo Arevalo, the surprise frontrunner in Guatemala’s presidential election, is promising to revive a stalled anti-corruption movement and reverse democratic backsliding if voters back him in Sunday’s runoff vote.

A 64-year-old ex-diplomat, son of a former president and leader of the progressive Semilla party, Arevalo holds a double-digit lead in polls over his opponent, former first lady Sandra Torres.

“We need to turn the page,” Arevalo said in a debate on Monday, promising to bring the country “out of the swamp of corruption.”

Founded in 2017, Arevalo’s party Semilla, the Spanish word for seed, has roots in anti-graft protests organized in 2015 after Guatemala’s attorney general and a UN-backed anti-corruption body revealed a corruption scheme involving the president and vice president, who resigned and were arrested.

Recent years have seen a backlash to corruption investigations, with dozens of prosecutors and judges forced into exile. Arevalo has promised to welcome them back.

“The first, most important item on (Arevalo’s) agenda is the fight against corruption,” said Samuel Perez Alvarez, Semilla’s leader in congress.

Arevalo surged in support this year after authorities disqualified three other opposition contenders, including the frontrunner, drawing concern from rights groups.

In 2019, Semilla’s then candidate, former attorney general Thelma Aldana, was similarly disqualified on what she said were politically motivated corruption charges.

Arevalo nearly met a similar fate when a prosecutor persuaded a court to suspend Semilla after June’s first-round vote, threatening to sideline his bid. Guatemala’s top court later reversed the ban.

If elected, Arevalo will have to work with a Congress where Semilla will only control 23 of 160 seats.

“Their big challenge will be to evolve from an opposition party to the ruling party. They will need to dialogue and possibly reconcile with people who were once political adversaries,” said political analyst Marielos Chang.

Arevalo’s personal history has infused his campaign with symbolism. His father, Juan Jose Arevalo, became Guatemala’s first democratically elected president in 1945, ushering in an era of reforms dubbed Guatemala’s “democratic spring.”

That period was cut short by a U.S.-backed military coup against Arevalo’s successor in 1954.

At his campaign’s closing event on Wednesday, Arevalo promised the advent of a new “spring” if elected.

“For the first time in many years there is an alternative,” he said.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Boyle; Editing by Chris Reese)

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