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Guatemala's presidential elections will be a test for its fragile democracy

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Voters in the Central American country of Guatemala are at the polls today to elect a new president. It's an election that has already been full of legal and political drama, but it's also one that's being seen as a huge test for a fragile democracy. NPR's Eyder Peralta joins us from Guatemala City. Good morning, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So let's start with the big question - why are the stakes so high for this election?

PERALTA: I think you have to look at the big picture. Just a few years ago, Guatemala was a country that was making strides with its democracy. It was fighting corruption with the help of a U.N.-backed task force. And at one point, popular protests even forced a sitting president out of office over charges of corruption.

And then the last few years, the establishment struck back. They threw the corruption task force out of the country. They started arresting journalists and harassing judges and prosecutors. And the first round of these elections were held under those same pressures. Some popular candidates were kicked out of the ballot for very flimsy reasons.

And then the first round ended in a huge surprise - a reformist candidate took second place. And now analysts say that this election could actually be a chance to stop Guatemala's democratic backslide.

RASCOE: And why is that? Like, why could this election mean change?

PERALTA: I was talking yesterday with Edgar Ortiz Romero, and he's a constitutional law expert and a political risk analyst. And he used a movie metaphor. He said that what happened here in Guatemala is, quote, "a glitch in the Matrix." And what he means by that is that the ruling class here was using corrupt institutions to get rid of their competitors, but they didn't go after the underdog. And this underdog miraculously came in second place.

So now you have Bernardo Arevalo, the underdog, an anti-corruption candidate who has promised to restore institutions, and he's facing off against Sandra Torres, a former first lady who was once jailed on corruption charges and who is backed by the ruling class here. Arevalo is leading in the polls by a huge margin. And Edgar Ortiz Romero believes this presents a great chance to short-circuit the power grab that the ruling class has been orchestrating here for years. But Romero says watch out. Let's listen.

EDGAR ORTIZ ROMERO: Our democracy was saved by the incompetence of the bad guys and not because of the virtue of the good ones.

PERALTA: So he says the ruling class here has not yet given up on trying to get their way or they haven't yet given up on trying to fix that glitch in the matrix, so to speak.

RASCOE: You've been in Guatemala. What have you been hearing?

PERALTA: I have heard cautious optimism. Most of the people I spoke to say they are going to vote for Bernardo Arevalo because they think he's new to the political game and so he's less likely to be corrupt. I spoke to Areceli Castro at a vegetable market here in Guatemala City, and she's backing Arevalo. But let's listen to what she told me when I asked her if she thought Guatemala could change if Arevalo wins.

ARECELI CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: So she's saying yes, things will change, but not drastically. "That's impossible right now," she says. "But I believe that at least the country won't sink any lower." So she's setting a very low bar. But yet it's a glimmer of hope.

RASCOE: In the 30 seconds we have left - people are voting right now. When will results come in, and what are you expecting?

PERALTA: So results - we should get them around 10 p.m. So by tomorrow we should have a clear idea of who the winner will be. But this is going to be a long process because Sandra Torres, who is way behind in the polls, has alleged rigging, without any proof. But her team has already hinted that they're preparing for a big legal battle.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Eyder Peralta in Guatemala City. Eyder, thank you.

PERALTA: Thank you, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is the host of "Weekend Edition Sunday" and the Saturday episodes of "Up First." As host of the morning news magazine, she interviews news makers, entertainers, politicians and more about the stories that everyone is talking about or that everyone should be talking about.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.