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In Guatemala, an unlikely candidate qualifies for the runoff vote

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In Guatemala, the presidential election has just turned on its head. Against all predictions, a centrist-left former professor and diplomat made it into the second round, which means the upcoming weeks promise to be full of political intrigue and negative campaigning, as Maria Martin reports.

MARIA MARTIN, BYLINE: No one had seen this coming - not the pollsters, nor the media, nor even his own supporters in the small reformist anti-corruption party called Semilla - seed - which called on people to vote differently.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Spanish).

MARTIN: Sixty-four-year-old Semilla standard-bearer Bernardo Arevalo, the son of Guatemala's first democratically elected president, won 12% of the vote last Sunday, just a few points behind leading candidate Sandra Torres, who's supported by business and the ruling class. Arevalo says his unexpected second-place finish and the high number of blank and spoiled ballots indicated an overwhelming popular rejection of Guatemala's corrupt status quo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNARDO AREVALO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: "People are tired," he says, "of a political system that only generates more poverty, more deterioration and less democracy." Semilla supporters were thought to be largely limited to urban Guatemala City, and the party had limited financial resources, says political analyst Juan Luis Font.

JUAN LUIS FONT: They were driving their own cars. They didn't have the support of these big financial Guatemalan groups, and they just got it.

MARTIN: Arevalo was able to fly under the radar since he wasn't seen as a threat to the establishment in an election that saw four candidates disqualified. Another plus, say analysts, was that he stuck to his anti-corruption message.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AREVALO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: Arevalo says he'll bring back anti-corruption judges and prosecutors in exile as advisers to help him develop his strategy. Arevalo's challenge in the next seven weeks before the runoff vote is to broaden his party's support outside urban areas, to reach out to the large number of voters who turned in spoiled ballots and to get past the mushrooming negative campaigns on social media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: Numerous posts like these paint Arevalo as a communist and a perpetrator of electoral fraud. Meanwhile, Arevalo's opponent, Sandra Torres, says he'd legalize abortion and gay marriage and destroy the country's social fabric.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDRA TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: "Don't let him mess with Guatemalan children and families," says Torres.

MARTIN: But the negative campaigns appear to be working.

ESTELA MENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: Hairdresser Estela Mendez says everyone at her salon says she should be afraid of Arevalo. Now she's confused. Meanwhile, there's a court challenge underway that may stop his candidacy, while the OAS and the EU are calling on Guatemala's government to respect the popular will.

For NPR News, I'm Maria Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maria Martin