A presidential candidate campaigning against corruption and impunity in Guatemala stunned the political establishment on Sunday by securing enough votes to advance to a runoff, setting up a showdown with entrenched elites who have long held power in Central America’s largest country.
Bernardo Arévalo, a professorial lawmaker with degrees in philosophy and anthropology, won 12 percent of the vote, with 98 percent of votes counted in Sunday’s first round, the electoral authority said on Monday. Sandra Torres, a former first lady considered a standard-bearer for the conservative establishment, came in first with nearly 16 percent of the vote.
Despite attracting such a relatively small share of the vote, Ms. Torres and Mr. Arévalo were the top two finishers and will face off in a runoff on Aug. 20 because most Guatemalans did not vote, left their ballots blank or nullified them.
Nearly 40 percent of voters did not take part in Sunday’s elections, while 24 percent of the ballots were left blank or nullified, meaning that nearly two-thirds of the electorate chose not to vote for any candidate.
Mr. Arévalo’s surprise showing combined with the deep lack of voter participation shows a high level of disenchantment with Guatemala’s political system, election analysts said. The government has come under scrutiny over increasingly authoritarian tactics that have targeted independent news media and forced dozens of judges and prosecutors focused on fighting corruption into exile.
“We are seeing how the population expresses its fatigue with a system, with a form of politics and government,” said Edie Cux, the director of Citizen Action, a nonprofit that was part of an alliance of groups that oversaw the electoral process. “The population is demanding reforms.”
Two establishment candidates who were viewed as top contenders — Edmond Mulet, a former diplomat; and Zury Ríos, a daughter of a former dictator convicted of genocide — finished in fourth and fifth place. Before Sunday’s vote, the nation’ electoral authority had disqualified at least four candidates from running, including Carlos Pineda, a mercurial front-runner who had unsettled the political establishment, and Thelma Cabrera, an organizer trying to unify Guatemala’s long-marginalized Indigenous voters.
The campaign was dominated by a handful of recurring themes, including an increase in violent crime and economic challenges in a country with some of the highest rates of poverty and inequality in Latin America.
Ms. Torres, who was the runner-up in the two most recent presidential elections, has pledged to address the violence by emulating a strategy used in neighboring El Salvador with the goal of cracking down on gangs.
Still, it was Mr. Arévalo, often called Tío Bernie (Uncle Bernie) and a son of a president fondly remembered by many Guatemalans for creating the country’s social security system in the 1940s, who seemingly came out of nowhere to garner enough support to advance. The leadership of his party, called Semilla, or Seed, is comprised largely of urban professionals, such as university professors, engineers and owners of small businesses.
Loren Giordano, 33, a graphic designer and an entrepreneur in Guatemala City, said she voted for Mr. Arévalo because his party promotes measures that she supports, including proposed legislation to increase spending on the training of cancer specialists, equipment and medicines. But the measure failed to pass.
Still, Ms. Giordano does not have faith that Mr. Arévalo’s showing on Sunday will yield tangible improvements, even if he wins the presidency.
“I support Semilla and I think they do want to make a change, but I don’t think the system will allow it,” she said. “It seems utopian to think that we will have a candidate who is not involved in corruption and narcopolitics.”
Mr. Arévalo, despite his unexpected performance, faces an uphill battle against Ms. Torres in the coming weeks. She has broad name recognition and is building on her time as first lady, when she was the face of popular antipoverty programs, including food assistance and cash transfers for poor families.
Ms. Torres can also draw on the support of an establishment unlikely to upend the status quo, which is represented by President Alejandro Giammattei, who was barred by law from seeking re-election to a second term. Some other countries in the region, most notably Mexico, have similar laws.
During his tenure, Guatemala has shifted from being a regional model for its anti-corruption efforts to a country that, like several of its neighbors, has undermined democratic norms.
But Mr. Arévalo has also skillfully mounted an insurgent campaign, mixing the deployment of memes with serious positioning on issues like improving public health services. He has repeatedly said that he would recruit prosecutors and judges who had been forced to leave Guatemala as advisers to aid him on tackling corruption.
In a country where the winning electoral formula often includes deep-pocketed campaigns, occupying significant broadcast time on national television channels and the blessings of economic elites, Mr. Arévalo had “none of those,” said Marielos Chang, a political scientist at the Universidad del Valle in Guatemala City.
“No one would have believed it when the presidential campaign began three months ago, that Bernardo Arévalo would have enough votes to advance,’’ she said.