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Graft-weary Guatemalans to choose new president

Jimmy Morales, presidential candidate for the National Front of Convergence party, greets supporters during a campaign rally in Mataquescuintla municipality, Jalapa department, Guatemala, August 28, 2015/AFP

Jimmy Morales, presidential candidate for the National Front of Convergence party, greets supporters during a campaign rally in Mataquescuintla municipality, Jalapa department, Guatemala, August 28, 2015/AFP

GUATEMALA, Sep 06 – Guatemalans are set to vote on Sunday in a general election amid disgust at rampant corruption that felled the president and after an otherwise peaceful campaign took a deadly turn with clashes in a small town.

Polling stations open at 7:00 am (1300 GMT) across the impoverished Central American nation of some 15.8 million people, who are expected to turn out in lower-than-usual numbers amid vast political dissatisfaction.

The run-up to Guatemala’s elections had remained mainly non-violent until Saturday, when clashes between supporters from different parties left one person dead and resulted in 26 arrests in the southern town of Santa Barbara.

Some 35,000 police officers will be deployed for the elections, which come just days after disgraced president Otto Perez stepped down from office before being arrested.

Leading the presidential race is comedian Jimmy Morales, a political novice who rose to fame playing a simpleton who accidentally ends up becoming president.

A poll released Thursday put Morales in the lead with 25 percent of the vote, while long-time frontrunner and right-wing lawyer Manuel Baldizonat trailed at 22.9 percent.

Former first lady Sandra Torres held 18.4 percent.

The election caps a tumultuous week that reinforced many voters’ belief that the polls are meaningless without a massive political system cleanup.

On Tuesday, Congress lifted immunity from prosecution for Perez, who stands accused of overseeing a massive corruption customs scheme. By Wednesday he had stepped down from office and was promptly arrested on a court order.

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The elections will take place as he watches from jail while awaiting more legal proceedings. As a criminal suspect, he cannot vote.

Disenchanted voters, many of whom have called for the poll to be postponed, will have until 6:00 pm to cast their ballots, with preliminary results not expected for more than three hours.

“It is the first time in Guatemala that low turnout looks possible,” said Reyna de Leon, of UN Women Guatemala, which works for gender equality.

“People do not easily forget what happened in previous governments.”

Protesters have long called for an overhaul of the political system to purge corruption, which accounts for 50 percent of party financing, according to the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI).

Several hundred demonstrators, some dressed in black and carrying cardboard coffins and a tombstone, took to the streets Saturday to stage what they called an electoral burial.

“We are mourning because we believe the elections are a dead process, with no reform and with a number of candidates involved in corruption and legal problems,” said Isabel Juarez, 45, of the collective Another Guatemala Now.

The NGO has been staging weekly rallies since April, when the customs scheme was discovered.

Prosecutors say Perez, a 64-year-old retired general, ran a network of corrupt officials that took bribes from businesses to clear their imports through customs at a fraction of the official tax rate.

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The bribes amounted to $3.8 million between May 2014 and April 2015, including $800,000 received by Perez, prosecutors allege.

In an initial arraignment, Perez denied any involvement. He was forced to listen to hours of wiretapped conversations and shown documents that prosecutors say prove he is guilty.

A judge on Tuesday will decide whether to indict Perez formally.

Promises to clean up the country’s political situation have been a common campaign theme.

“One of the top challenges and priorities of my government will be an all-out war on corruption,” Torres said.

Meanwhile, Morales, who has no experience in politics, is promising to restore Guatemalans’ faith in their government.

He says he is the only candidate not tainted by corruption and has campaigned on a shoestring budget.

“I have earned a leading role through hard work because the other candidates ran expensive campaigns to make their faces known,” he told AFP.

If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote Sunday, which is likely, the top two will face each other in a run-off on October 25. The winner will be sworn in on January 14.

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Voters will also choose a new vice president, 158 lawmakers, 338 mayors and 20 delegates to a Central American regional parliament.

Until the inauguration in January, the country is in the hands of President Alejandro Maldonado, who donned the presidential sash Thursday in a hastily organized ceremony.

Perez, in power since 2012, was already constitutionally unable to seek another term as president but had long defied mounting calls to resign.

The scandal was uncovered by investigators from a UN commission tasked with fighting high-level graft in Guatemala.

The accusations have stoked outrage in a country where 53.7 percent of the population lives in poverty and where the scars from a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996 are still fresh.

Besides grinding poverty and corruption, Guatemalans endure horrific crime rates and powerful, vicious street gangs blamed for giving their country one of the world’s highest murder rates.

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