GUATEMALA CITY: Guatemalans voted Sunday in a presidential runoff election between a comedian with no political experience and a former first lady, amid outrage over a corruption scandal that felled the ex-president.
Jimmy Morales, a comic actor famous for playing a country bumpkin who nearly becomes president, headed into the vote with a huge lead — 68 percent to 32 percent for social democrat Sandra Torres, according to the final opinion poll.
It has been a remarkable ride for the conservative candidate, who started the race with just 0.5 percent support back in April.
His surge has capped a tumultuous campaign rocked by president Otto Perez’s resignation and arrest on corruption charges on September 3, three days before the first-round vote.
Morales vowed to continue the fight against corruption as he cast his ballot, dressed in the jersey of the Guatemalan national football team.
“Guatemala has taught the world a lesson at this historic moment. We have to maintain that commitment,” he said of the country’s moves to bring corrupt leaders to justice.
He was coy on his frontrunner status, saying: “When I was a boy I was taught to wait until midnight before opening my presents.”
Former president Perez, who is in jail awaiting trial, is accused of masterminding a corrupt network of politicians and customs officials that took bribes from businesses in exchange for illegal discounts on import duties.
Prosecutors and United Nations investigators say the network collected $3.8 million in bribes between May 2014 and April 2015 — including $800,000 each to Perez and jailed ex-vice president Roxana Baldetti.
The scandal, the worst in a string of recent corruption cases, has created an unprecedented climate of outrage in Guatemala, an impoverished Central American country torn by gang violence and still recovering from a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.
Morales rode that wave of anger to a surprise victory in the first-round vote, claiming 24 percent to 20 percent for Torres in a crowded field of candidates.
– ‘State in death spiral’ –
Whoever wins must rebuild confidence in the government at a time of deep public distrust, shaky institutions and a depleted treasury.
“The new president will face a somber panorama because the state is in a death spiral,” said Manfredo Marroquin, head of the local chapter of Transparency International.
If Morales wins, he will have to govern with just 11 seats in the 158-seat Congress.
Voters voiced concern about the political situation as they cast their ballots.
“Politically, Guatemala is still in diapers and I’m worried,” said architect Monica Figueroa.
“But now is the time for all honest Guatemalans to get involved in government. We didn’t have many options but our duty is to vote.”
Textile salesman Francisco Estrada agreed “things are really bad.”
“The next president must at least purge the police and clean up the government,” he said.
The two contenders have radically different styles.
Morales, 46, was all smiles and charisma on the campaign trail, with few concrete policy pledges.
He has however called fighting corruption his biggest aim.
Torres, 60, has an image as a steely and uncompromising manager from her time running the government’s social programs during the administration of her ex-husband, Alvaro Colom (2008-2012).
She sought to present a softer side in the campaign, but has paid the price of being a political insider in a country fed up with politics as usual.
Torres took one last dig at Morales as she cast her ballot, underlining that his party was founded by former military officers, including some accused of committing human rights violations during Guatemala’s civil war.
“The other candidate represents the old guard,” she said.
Until inauguration day on January 14, the country is in the hands of caretaker president Alejandro Maldonado, a former Constitutional Court judge.
Maldonado, 79, praised Guatemalans for turning out to vote, saying after casting his ballot that participating “gives the people the legitimacy to keep watch and make demands.”
Guatemala, a country of 15.8 million people, has 7.5 million registered voters.
Polls close at 6:00 pm (midnight GMT), with first results expected about three hours later. (AFP)