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Guatemala astonishing victory of an anti-corruption presidential candidate

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The first round of the presidential election in Guatemala was more notable for apathy, low voter turnout and spoiled ballots. Well, that was in June. Then last night, an outsider, an anti-corruption campaigner, changed all that. Bernardo Arevalo pulled off one of the country's biggest political upsets in years and claimed a landslide victory. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports from Guatemala City.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: When I was here a couple of months ago, all I heard was lament. All politicians are thieves. Guatemala is circling the drain of authoritarianism, and there's little we can do about it. But yesterday, as I crisscrossed the voting precincts in Guatemala City, all I hear is hope.

ARMANDO GALVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "This is spectacular," says Armando Galvez. He's 76 years old, and he didn't even vote in the first round of these elections.

GALVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "This round, I said, yes, sir. I'm voting," he says, "because it's a moral and spiritual obligation." Suddenly, he says, an improbable outsider candidate has led to what he calls a Guatemalan awakening. Voting took place with few hiccups, and just as the sun started to set, counting began.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: And what emerged was a landslide. Bernardo Arevalo, an outsider, an anti-corruption crusader in a country where those kinds of people are being persecuted, won the election with 58% of the vote, some 20 percentage points over his rival. To Jahir Dabroy, a political analyst at the Association for Research and Social Studies, a think tank in Guatemala, this election marks a turning point. First, Guatemala has almost always had conservative governments. Now they have a progressive, center-left president-elect.

JAHIR DABROY: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "And this brings a measure of freshness to the Central American region," he says. Bernardo Arevalo, who is a 64-year-old sociologist, is backed by the young people of Guatemala, and many of his advisers and party leaders aren't even old enough to run for president. Dabroy says it also marks a departure from what we had been seeing in Central America - more authoritarianism in exchange for order and security. This campaign, he says, was mainly about ending corruption and about other modern themes like the environment and gender equality.

DABROY: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "All those things," he says, "require democracy." In a speech, Bernardo Arevalo committed to reversing the government's persecution of independent judges and prosecutors, as well as human rights activists and journalists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNARDO AREVALO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "We will do what we can from the executive to end this practice," he said, "and to protect those who defend the rights of Guatemalans." After his speech, thousands of Guatemalans poured out onto the street.

It is almost 11 o'clock at night, and the crowd out here in Guatemala City keeps growing. And this is a huge celebration in Guatemala because this was not supposed to happen. People are chanting, yes, we did it. Yes, it could be done.

The party went on all night. It was a moment of hope. But by the time the sun came up, a bit of reality set in. Arevalo's main rival hinted she was not accepting the result, foreshadowing a long legal battle.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Guatemala City. 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.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.