By Cassandra Garrison and Sofia Menchu
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) -Guatemalans voted on Sunday in a presidential run-off election that many hope will signal an end to democratic backsliding that took place under previous administrations.
Recent polls have predicted that Bernardo Arevalo, a center-left candidate running on an anti-graft message, will trounce establishment figure and former first lady Sandra Torres. That outcome could usher in a new era after widespread allegations of corruption and creeping authoritarianism in recent years.
Guatemala’s new president will assume power as violence and food insecurity roil the country, triggering fresh waves of migration. Guatemalans now represent the largest number of Central Americans seeking to enter the United States.
“I voted for Arevalo because he is the only option we have. Voting for Sandra is backing the same people who came before,” said Roberto Alvarez, a 74-year-old accountant, after casting his ballot in Guatemala City.
The election is being closely watched by the international community, including the United States, after campaigning was marred by attempts by some officials to remove Arevalo and his Semilla party from the race.
His surprise second-place finish in June’s first-round of voting provoked calls from opponents for recounts that delayed official results. His party was briefly suspended at the request of a prosecutor before the country’s top court reversed the ban.
The political tussle has put some voters on edge about potential problems during the run-off, which Arevalo has publicly said he is expecting.
“I hope that everything is calm, that democracy wins, that there is no fraud or political issues … and that our country gets ahead more than anything,” said Ardem Villagran, a 58-year-old merchant in Guatemala City.
A key representative of the Organization of American States (OAS), which has a team of 86 election observers in Guatemala, said the voting has largely gone smoothly so far.
Eladio Loizaga, head of the OAS mission in Guatemala, said the vote has “fulfilled all the demanding obligations.”
But in a sign of the tensions that persist, two judges from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) reported receiving threatening messages linked to the elections. One of them has said she will resign on Monday, local media reported.
Outgoing conservative President Alejandro Giammattei has vowed to ensure an orderly vote and transition of power.
But many Guatemalans remain skeptical, having seen the government in recent years expel investigators from a U.N.-backed anti-corruption body and target judges and anti-corruption campaigners, many of whom fled into exile.
The attorney general who called for Semilla’s suspension had been previously added by the U.S. State Department to its Engel List of “corrupt and undemocratic actors.”
Polls will close at 6 p.m. local time (12 a.m. GMT).
The president-elect is scheduled to take office on Jan. 14, though experts warned that the months after the vote could see challenges to the result.
The OAS and U.S. see that as a risk, said Eric Olson, policy director with the Seattle International Foundation, which focuses on Central America.
“It’s a long time for there to be attempts at not only challenging the results but the legality of the winning party,” Olson added.
(Reporting by Cassandra Garrison in Guatemala City; Additional reporting by Herbert Villarraga and Sofia Menchu; Editing by Drazen Jorgic, Cynthia Osterman, Mark Porter and Paul Simao)
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