Comedian leads president vote in Guatemala


Comedian and political novice Jimmy Morales was in the lead early Monday following Guatemala’s first-round presidential election, after a tumultuous campaign, which saw the country’s leader jailed over a corruption scandal.
The 46-year-old actor who rose to fame playing a simpleton who accidentally ends up becoming president was ahead with 25.8 percent of the vote, according to results with 81.5 percent of the ballots counted from Sunday’s election.
With no candidate near the 50 percent necessary to avoid a second-round vote, the election is bound for an October 25 runoff between Morales and whichever of the two other candidates finishes second.
Longtime frontrunner and fellow conservative Manuel Baldizon, who had 18.6 percent of the vote, was neck-and-neck with former first lady Sandra Torres, who had 17.9 percent.
The results, which showed the two established politicians bested by a political outsider, seemed to demonstrate Guatemalans’ exasperation with the traditional political elite.
“The people are tired of more of the same, this is reflected in the results,” Morales told reporters after learning of his lead.
Political analyst Cecil de Leon said that Morales had emerged “a political phenomenon, without a past in political parties or public positions.”
The race was rocked by the scandal that felled president Otto Perez, which sparked protests on a scale never before seen in the impoverished Central American nation.
Some protesters had called for the vote to be postponed until anti-corruption reforms could be implemented, but the national electoral tribunal rejected petitions for a delay — triggering concern that many of the country’s 7.5 million voters would opt to stay home.
But turnout came in at between 68 and 70 percent, similar to the last general election in 2011, electoral tribunal chief Julio Solorzano said.
The protest movement that has shaken Guatemalan politics since the scandal broke in April, drawing thousands onto the streets for weekly demonstrations, was split over whether to take part in the polls.
An anti-election protest in the capital drew just a few dozen people on election day — though several hundred demonstrated Saturday, some dressed in black and carrying cardboard coffins for a “stillborn” vote.
On Twitter, the hashtag “voting in mourning” was trending in Guatemala — a slogan of reluctant participation.
The country served as “an example for Latin America” with its peaceful protests, said the head of the Organization of American States’ voting observation mission, Juan Pablo Corlazzoli.
Caretaker president Alejandro Maldonado, who was sworn in Thursday, called on Guatemalans to use their votes “to punish candidates who deceive them.”
Maldonado, a former Constitutional Court judge, will serve until an elected successor is inaugurated on January 14.
The vote itself was largely peaceful, dispelling fears of violence after clashes on Friday night between supporters of rival parties left one person dead in the southern town of Santa Barbara.
There were no reports of serious incidents Sunday, though officials said that in several communities protesters put up road blocks to stop local candidates from busing in outsiders, in a country where vote-buying is widespread.
Authorities deployed 35,000 police to provide security.
Perez submitted his resignation just before midnight Wednesday, after Congress stripped him of his immunity and a judge issued a warrant for his arrest.
By Thursday evening, the conservative leader was in jail. A judge will decide Tuesday whether to indict him.
Prosecutors and investigators from a UN commission tasked with fighting high-level graft in Guatemala accuse Perez of orchestrating a scheme that allowed importers to pay bribes to get illegal discounts on their customs duty.
The scheme — dubbed “La Linea” (the line), for a hotline businesses allegedly called to access a network of corrupt officials — 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, prosecutors allege.
The former president denies involvement.
Perez, a retired general who had been in power since 2012, was constitutionally ineligible to stand for reelection. He spent election day in jail, barred from voting as a criminal suspect.
Voters were also choosing a 158-seat Congress, 338 mayors and 20 delegates to the Central American regional parliament.
Guatemala is still recovering from a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, and 53.7 percent of the population lives in poverty.
It also suffers under the scourge of powerful street gangs blamed for giving it one of the highest murder rates in the world.
Corruption accounts for 50 percent of political parties’ financing, and some $500 million in state funds goes missing every year, according to the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies.


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