Bernardo Arevalo
Bernardo Arevalo has made it to a presidential run-off in a surprise upset in Guatemala. AFP / Luis ACOSTA

Guatemalans head to the polls Sunday in a presidential runoff marked by the harassment of a surprise frontrunner, who has fired up voters with his promises to end the rot of corruption.

The Central American nation is dogged by poverty, violence and graft, with thousands of its citizens heading abroad every year in search of a better life, many to the United States.

Reformist outsider Bernardo Arevalo pulled off a massive upset by finishing second in the first round, and will face off against former first lady Sandra Torres in the runoff. A recent poll shows Arevalo with a strong lead.

Both are social democrats, meaning Guatemala will have its first leftist leader in over a decade.

The shock first-round result was followed by raids against Arevalo's Semilla party offices, as well as those of the electoral board, prompting the United Nations, European Union, and Organization of American States (OAS) to raise the alarm over efforts to undermine the vote.

"The real power of democracy comes from respecting the will of the people," US assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Brian A. Nichols, posted on social media on Friday.

A week before the vote, OAS secretary general Luis Almagro said: "It's no secret that we are very worried."

Arevalo, a 64-year-old sociologist, claims to be the victim of "political persecution by a corrupt minority that knows it is losing power by the day."

Just days before the vote, prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche -- sanctioned by Washington for corruption -- said he did "not rule out" more raids and possible arrests after the elections.

Arevalo is leading with 50 percent according to the most recent poll by CID Gallup and the Freedom and Development Foundation, with Torres coming in second with 32 percent.

Torres, 67, is the ex-wife of deceased leftist president Alvaro Colom. She is taking her fourth shot at the presidency and has focused on violent crime and poverty.

On Friday, she raised doubts about the objectivity of the electoral board, accusing it of leaning towards Arevalo's party.

The winner will replace unpopular right-wing President Alejandro Giammattei, who is constitutionally limited to one term.

Observers have decried state efforts to protect a corrupt system benefiting those in power, with several prosecutors and journalists detained or forced into exile under Giammattei.

The corrupt "have progressively taken control of all state institutions," former attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz -- who is now in Costa Rica -- told AFP.

The first round in June saw low voter turnout and more than 17 percent of ballots cast invalid, with little hope among Guatemalans that their fortunes would change.

Guatemala has some of the worst poverty, malnutrition and child mortality rates in Latin America, according to the World Bank.

The murder rate is one of the highest in the world, with many killings attributed to gang violence related to drug trafficking.

Around 9.4 million of the country's 17.6 million people are eligible to vote when polls open at 7:00 am (1300GMT). Voting will end at 6:00 pm with first results expected later that evening.

The winner will take power on January 14.

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