Guatemala's former First Lady Sandra Torres won the first round of presidential elections this month.
CNN  — 

Few politicians have a backstory like Sandra Torres, winner of the first round in Guatemala’s presidential elections earlier this month, but the former first lady is no ordinary candidate.

In fact, these are no ordinary elections for Central America’s most populous nation. With two front-runners barred from the race and a third candidate arrested by the DEA on drug smuggling charges, Guatemalan voters were left to choose from a fragmented field, several of whom have been accused of links to criminal gangs and corruption networks.

Torres, who is the candidate for the center-left Unidad Nacional de Esperanza (UNE) party, came in first place with more than 25% of the vote, according to preliminary results from the electoral tribunal, and will now face off against Alejandro Giammattei, the candidate for right-wing party Vamos who gained 14% of the vote, in a runoff vote on August 11. If she wins, Torres will become the first female president in socially conservative Guatemala, although she has previously exercised considerable power in the country.

From 2008-12 Torres was first lady to President Alvaro Colom, and ended up controlling many government social programs, according to Marielos Chang, a political scientist at the Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala City and co-founder of NGO Red Ciudadana, which aims to improve civic participation and strengthen institutions in Guatemala. Wielding considerable influence despite not being elected, Torres began to attract criticism due to a lack of transparency over funding.

A powerful first lady

“Her position as first lady, acting as an adviser rather than part of the executive, allowed her to protect herself from congressional scrutiny,” said Chang. However Torres has claimed that she never had immunity, even when she was first lady, and says she is the most investigated figure in Guatemalan politics.

Mike Allison, professor of political science at the University of Scranton and an expert in Central American politics, agrees that the social programs and her “outsized role in her husband’s administration” stoked some anger towards Torres that carries through to this day. While these programs alleviated some of the poverty in more rural areas of the country, they also helped to build support for Torres, according to Allison.

Torres had planned to run in the 2011 election, but the Guatemalan constitution prohibits relatives of sitting presidents from running for the presidency. In what was widely viewed as an attempt to circumvent these rules, she divorced Colom shortly before the 2011 race, further polarizing public opinion. Her candidacy was ultimately rejected by the electoral court, leaving her out of the race. Torres has come to be seen as someone who believes the “end justifies the means,” said Chang, who added that she has consolidated power in her UNE grouping in Congress as well as among mayors and judges that have favored her in the past. “She has managed to construct an electoral machine and a network inside public administration that works in her favor,” Chang said.

Legal issues have stalked both candidates

In 2015, Torres was eligible to run in an election that she narrowly lost to former TV comedian Jimmy Morales, and the UNE is now under investigation for illicit campaign financing during the 2015 run. Prosecutors claim that UNE received around $2.5 million in undeclared donations while Torres was general secretary of the party January-June 2015, and have tried to get Torres’ immunity from prosecution lifted over the case, but in February she told CNN that she is cooperating with the investigation, which she claims is politically motivated.

CNN has attempted to contact representatives of UNE for comment.

“Allegations of corruption and other wrongdoing have surrounded their political parties, close advisers, and the candidates themselves for some time now,” said Allison, who told CNN he does not have much confidence in Torres or her second-round rival Giammattei.

 Alejandro Giammattei, known as the "eternal candidate," has run for the presidency four times.

Torres’ runoff opponent has run for president four times, and is known as the “eternal candidate,” although he has never before reached the second round, said Chang. Although he has been absolved due to a lack of evidence, Giammattei once faced accusations of involvement in extrajudicial killings of prisoners during his time as director of the prison service.

His right-wing party Vamos is a “recycling” of former parties that have been disbanded due to corruption scandals, said Chang, and many people say he is a “Jimmy Morales 2.0” due to his relationship with the same group of advisers as the current president. With a January poll showing an approval rating of just 36% for Morales, who has been dogged by corruption allegations of his own and ended the mandate of a UN-backed anti-corruption body popular with the public, that is far from a helpful association for Giammattei.

CNN has attempted to contact representatives of Torres and Giammattei for comment.

Emergence of new political forces

Estuardo Galdamez, the presidential candidate for Morales’ FCN-Nacion party, received just over 4% of the vote in last Sunday’s election, the worst result ever for an incumbent party. The barring of two potential candidates who had been polling strongest – Thelma Aldana, the former attorney general, and Zury Rios, daughter of former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt – may have blown a traditionally fragmented political system even wider open, according to Allison, and there were a record 19 candidates for the presidency. However there were no clear candidates to whom Rios’ and Aldana’s voters would naturally migrate, said Allison.

This fragmentation led to some surprising results, including the emergence of indigenous Maya Mam candidate Thelma Cabrera, who took fourth place with just over 10% of the vote. “Indigenous communities have always been excluded from society,” said Jorge Raul Cruz, executive director of Fundacion Esquipulas, a think tank which works to strengthen democracy and civil society. “Cabrera broke all of the stereotypes.”

Thelma Cabrera, an indigenous Maya Mam candidate, received over 10% of the vote last Sunday.

Never before has an indigenous candidate won so many votes, and Cabrera’s campaign marked a new foray into party politics for indigenous groups that have traditionally used protests and social movements to try and bring about change. Cruz emphasized that this was the most inclusive democratic process in Guatemalan history, and he is optimistic about the direction of the country after the first stage of what is only the country’s eighth election since returning to democracy in 1985 following a period of military dictatorship. “The people want democracy to work,” he said.

Criminal infiltration of politics remains a worry

While Cabrera represents a bright spot for the representation of Guatemalan’s indigenous population, the success of the Union del Cambio Nacional (UCN) party in mayoral and congressional elections raises concerns over political infiltration by organized crime, according to Chang. In April, UCN presidential candidate Mario Estrada was arrested by DEA agents in Miami on drug trafficking charges. After his detention neither Estrada nor his lawyers have made any declarations on the accusations. Despite Estrada’s arrest, UCN will become the third-largest party in congress, behind UNE and Vamos, said Chang.

The 2019 electoral process has shown that Guatemala’s democracy is at best very weak, and organized crime operates throughout state institutions, said Allison. After the Colom administration, former army officer Otto Perez Molina became president in 2012. By 2015 he had resigned following a corruption investigation that shook the government and sparked protests, and has since been charged with racketeering, illicit enrichment and fraud. Perez Molina is in prison, while his successor and current President Jimmy Morales won the next election running on the slogan “Not corrupt, not a thief,” but has since been embroiled in corruption allegations of his own, although he has declared his innocence.

Perez Molina denies the charges against him but remains in detention awaiting trial, and Colom, who denies all wrongdoing, was in prison from February-August 2018 before being released on bail awaiting trial. Morales has so far managed to fend off attempts to lift his presidential immunity, and at the same time has ended the agreement that keeps the UN-backed anti-corruption body the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in the country.

“President Morales has successfully worn down the optimism and mobilization of pro-democratic forces that helped bring down his predecessor,” said Allison, in reference to street protests and anti-corruption investigations that led to Perez Molina’s resignation in 2015. “From the campaign, we learned that many political and economic elites still do not want real change in Guatemala.”

What comes next?

Chang says Guatemala is moving closer to replicating the situation in neighboring Honduras, where President Juan Orlando Hernandez won a controversial 2017 election and remains in power despite rising street protests. “There exist similar doubts over the electoral process, questions over voter fraud, and the factor of high-level drug smuggling,” she said.

However Cruz strikes a note of caution, pointing out that electoral observers noted anomalies but not fraud in the electoral process. “In a country like Guatemala we have to be careful with democracy,” he said. With the second round almost two months away, Cruz anticipates a “hard-fought campaign.”

Allison predicts that the loosely defined “left” will coalesce around Torres as Giammattei gathers support from the “right.” He said both candidates will be looking for votes from the political center, although the main challenge will be mobilizing core voters as voter turnout will likely drop from the 61.08% seen in the first round. And Chang agrees that mobilizing voters will be key. “It won’t be the party with the best electoral offer that wins, but rather the one best equipped to get people to polling centers,” she said. “In the second round we will reduce our democracy to a simple logistic exercise.”