Nevertheless, the former first lady has high negative ratings and may struggle to win a direct runoff if supporters of the many right-of-center candidates unite against her.
Guatemala's presidential election was headed for a runoff as results Monday gave center-left candidate Sandra Torres a clear lead but far short of the outright majority needed to avoid a second round against a conservative rival.
With votes tallied from 94 percent of polling stations, preliminary results from Sunday's election gave former first lady Torres 25.27 percent of the vote, followed by conservative Alejandro Giammattei with 14.08 percent, the electoral tribunal's website said.
Early on Monday, Torres said she would work to forge alliances to win the second round runoff, which is due to be held on Aug. 11.
"The country needs unity: To unite the countryside with the city, to unite the workers with the business community, and also in civil society, in all sectors," she told reporters.
The head of the electoral tribunal said late Sunday it could take approximately two weeks to have definitive results from across the Central American country.
Guatemala's next president faces the difficult task of curbing drug gang violence that has ravaged the country and helped spur illegal immigration to the United States, souring relations with President Donald Trump.
Torres, of the center-left UNE party, has for weeks led the race to succeed President Jimmy Morales, a conservative former television host whose term has been blighted by accusations of corruption made by U.N.-backed investigators.
Nevertheless, Torres also has high negative ratings and may struggle to win a direct runoff if supporters of the many right-of-center candidates unite against her.
Meanwhile, the 63-year old Giammattei focused his campaign on building a “wall of investment” along Guatemala’s border with Mexico, in order to promote jobs and reduce migration. He ran the country’s prison system from 2005 to 2007 and in 2010 was arrested and accused of abuse of power and involvement in extrajudicial executions.
Nineteen candidates took part in the vote. In third place with 11.32 percent was Edmond Mulet, a former U.N. official whose conservative candidacy gained traction in recent weeks.
Torres, who wants to send troops into the streets to fight drug gangs, and use welfare programs to tackle poverty, extended a hand to Guatemala's business elite when voting on Sunday.
Rampant violence and widespread discontent over corruption and impunity in the country of 17 million have prompted more and more Guatemalans to flee for the United States.
The surge of departures has undermined Trump's pledge to curb illegal immigration, and the U.S. president has responded by threatening to cut U.S. aid to Central America.
That prospect has caused alarm in Guatemala, where the legacy of the bloody 1960-1996 civil war still casts a long shadow over the country's development.
Rain fell on Guatemala City during Sunday's vote and results suggested there was considerable discontent among the electorate about the choice of candidates on offer. More than 13 percent of votes cast were blank or spoiled ballots, the count showed.
President Morales, who is barred by law from seeking re-election, took office in 2016 vowing to end corruption after his predecessor was brought down by a probe led by the U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).
Instead, Morales himself became a target of a CICIG probe into allegations of campaign finance wrongdoing and was subject to impeachment proceedings in 2017. He survived the attempt to oust him, and then engaged in a bitter dispute with the CICIG before finally terminating its mandate, effective from September.
Despite minor isolated incidents reported by teleSUR’s correspondent Mario Rosales, the elections were carried normally.
“All the voting boards were installed, even in the United States, the electoral process is being developed in its greater part within the framework of the law, of course, there are circumstances, which are not predictable in the electoral process within some municipalities like in San Jorge," the President of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, Julio Solorzano, Magistrate told reporters.
In Guatemala’s first, Thelma Cabrera, finished fourth, being the only Indigenous woman presidential candidate in a country in which by some counts 60 percent of the population is indigenous.