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Sunday August 25th, 2019 10:51AM

Worries on graft, violence after Giammattei win in Guatemala

By The Associated Press
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GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — After Alejandro Giammattei overwhelmingly won election as Guatemala's next president there was little celebration Monday amid questions about how he will tackle the corruption, violence and lack of opportunity that has driven tens of thousands to flee the Central American nation.

Giammattei, who takes office Jan. 14 for a four-year term, received nearly 58% of the votes compared with 42% for former first lady Sandra Torres in Sunday's runoff. But more than half of eligible voters abstained, suggesting a fed-up electorate where many found neither candidate inspiring.

"I think it is going to be the same as this government," said Guillermo Cacao, a businessman, referring to the outgoing administration of Jimmy Morales, who has been the subject of suspected graft allegations though he denies guilt and has been shielded from prosecution as sitting president.

But enough voters in the runoff were swayed by the president-elect's promises to crack down on crime, with homicide rates among the worst in the world at about 35 per 100,000 inhabitants, as well as his staunch socially conservative stances against abortion and same-sex marriage.

The 63-year-old doctor succeeded on his fourth run for the presidency after several more popular candidates were barred from the race, including a former prosecutor who was instrumental in the anti-corruption drive of recent years.

Analysts also saw in his victory a likely continuation of the political status quo.

"During his 20 years of running for the presidency, Giammattei has been surrounded by people linked to corruption and organized crime," said Mike Allison, a political scientist specializing in Central America at the University of Scranton. "Like Morales, Giammattei will be more interested in protecting his friends and allies from criminal judgment than in strengthening the rule of law."

Morales last year ended the mandate of a U.N. commission that helped jail dozens of powerful politicians, officials and businesspeople. The commission known as CICIG is set to wrap up operations and decamp from the country next month.

Giammattei "will not support the continuation of CICIG, which has achieved important advances in that fight in recent years," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, noting that he has not seen positive signals from the next president regarding the issue.

Nonetheless he expressed hope that the new government may surprise by committing to serious reforms on other matters of public importance.

One of Giammattei's most crucial and difficult tasks will be trying to stem the large flow of migrants heading toward the United States, with at least 1% of Guatemala's population of some 16 million having left this year alone.

He will also have to figure out whether to abide by or scrap an agreement Morales signed last month with Washington that would require Hondurans and Salvadorans crossing through his country to apply for asylum there instead of on U.S. soil.

The agreement, which came amid pressure from the Trump administration, has been criticized at home by opponents who note that Guatemala, not only a transit country but a sending country for many migrants and asylum seekers, suffers the same violence, poverty and lack of opportunity that people are fleeing in Honduras and El Salvador. It has also been challenged in the courts.

Neither Giammattei nor Torres talked much about the agreement in their final pitches to voters in recent weeks, beyond saying the issue should have been left to the winner of the election rather than negotiated under Morales. The president-elect has not said whether he will implement the deal, though he has allowed that Guatemala has scant resources to apply to the issue.

Allison said it appears that Giammattei "would seem to be aligning with those who believe the consequences of rejecting a 'safe third country' agreement with the United States would be worse than accepting it."

Giammattei spent several months behind bars in 2008 when he was director of the country's prison system, after some prisoners were killed in a raid on his watch. He was eventually acquitted of wrongdoing.

Late Sunday, leaning on the crutches he uses because of his multiple sclerosis, Giammattei acknowledged in his emotional victory speech that it had been a long road.

"We won. We are very excited, it is logical, it has been 12 years of struggle," Giammattei said. "Twelve years waiting to serve my country."

Kesia Fonseca, a small business owner, said she fears possible restrictions of some rights due to Giammattei's strong ideological positions.

"I am afraid for the future of my children, that it could become like Venezuela where people are fleeing the country," Fonseca said.

Human Rights Prosecutor Jordán Rodas said Sunday he hopes the new government will respect liberties and that he was prepared to hold talks on protecting rights.

More than 8 million Guatemalans are registered to vote, and absenteeism Sunday was reported at 57%.

"The most telling thing about the election," Shifter said, "was the lack of enthusiasm and low participation."

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