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Guatemalans vote for their president today, but few have faith in the process

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Voters in Guatemala go to the polls today in an election that's been marked by controversy. Guatemala is Central America's largest economy but a deeply unequal one. And there's little trust that any of the crowded field of presidential candidates can address the country's problems. Maria Martin is in Guatemala and joins us now. Good morning, Maria.

MARIA MARTIN, BYLINE: Buenos dias.

RASCOE: So what are voters telling you?

MARTIN: Well, Guatemalan voters that I've spoken with - they get a very pained look on their faces when you ask them about these elections because for them, this vote doesn't represent their wishes nor a democratic process. Four candidates have been disqualified from running, and others who some say should have been disqualified are running. Some analysts are calling the electoral process a farce, and that's the way that most Guatemalan voters that I've spoken with also feel. Many were still undecided till the last minute.

I spoke to one woman. She's 50-year-old Bertila Rodriguez (ph). She works as a manicurist. Let's hear what she has to say.

BERTILA RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: "I feel indecision," she says, "because of everything we've lived through with so much poor leadership. If they fail us, then what's going to become of us and our children and our grandchildren?"

So what this voter is referring to is that since 2015, when a popular uprising led to the resignation of a corrupt president, there have been two elections - the people elected first Jimmy Morales and then current President Alejandro Giammattei, who both made a lot of promises about fighting corruption and making things better. But Morales got rid of an effective anti-corruption commission, and since then, there's been more impunity, more graft and a return to authoritarianism.

RASCOE: What other issues are driving their vote?

MARTIN: Well, people are worried about, of course, the economy, about security and about corruption. And I think they're also concerned about the future of their country and what is happening now. For example, investigative reports indicate that many candidates, especially on a congressional and local level, have ties to drug running and organized crime. So many Guatemalans just feel hopeless because though the economy is growing, it's not trickling down to everyday citizens. And that's one reason why we see so much forced migration from Guatemala to the United States.

RASCOE: So who are the leading candidates?

MARTIN: There are two women who are among the top three candidates. Both of them carry substantial political baggage. There's former first lady Sandra Torres. She was once jailed for corruption and is currently leading the presidential race, while Zury Rios, who's the daughter of a former Guatemalan dictator, is polling in third position. And gaining is ex-diplomat Edmond Mulet, who could likely make it to the expected second round. But many voters have told pollsters that they plan to leave their ballots blank or don't plan to vote at all. And if no one of the 22 candidates receives at least 50% of the vote, then the top two contenders will go to a second round at the end of August. And it's going to be a very long summer for Guatemalan voters if that happens.

RASCOE: Reporter Maria Martin in Guatemala, thank you so much for joining us.

MARTIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Maria Martin