Corruption-weary Guatemalans elect comedian as president

October 26, 2015 5:33 am
President-elect Jimmy Morales, of the National Front Convergence, delivers a speech next to his wife Hilda Marroquin, after winning the run-off election, in Guatemala City on October 25, 2015  © AFP
President-elect Jimmy Morales, of the National Front Convergence, delivers a speech next to his wife Hilda Marroquin, after winning the run-off election, in Guatemala City on October 25, 2015

, GUATEMALA CITY, Oct 26 – Comedian Jimmy Morales jumped to a massive lead in Guatemala’s presidential race, declaring victory after a campaign upended by a corruption scandal that felled the outgoing president.

Morales, a comic actor and TV personality with no political experience, had 69 percent of the vote to 31 percent for former first lady Sandra Torres, with 94 percent of polling stations reporting.

“With this election you have made me president, I received a mandate and that mandate is to fight the corruption that has consumed us,” said Morales on national TV.

“Thank you for this vote of confidence. My commitment remains to God and the Guatemalan people, and I will work with all my heart and strength not to defraud you.”

Torres conceded defeat in a brief televised address, telling Guatemalans that “the people have made their choice and we respect it. We wish Mr Morales the best of success.”

It has been a remarkable ride for the conservative candidate, who started the race with just 0.5 percent support back in April.

The campaign was rocked by president Otto Perez’s resignation and arrest on corruption charges on September 3, three days before the first-round vote.

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.

Morales rode a wave of outrage with politics-as-usual in the impoverished Central American country, which is torn by gang violence and still recovering from a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.

He won the first-round vote with 24 percent to 20 percent for Social Democrat Torres.

– Clinic with no medicine –

Morales, 46, is famous for playing a country bumpkin cowboy who nearly becomes president in the 2007 film “A President in a Sombrero.”

In real life, the presidential race was his first foray into national politics, though he once ran unsuccessfully for mayor of his hometown.

Morales will be tasked with rebuilding 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.

Morales will also 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.

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.

In the central town of Chinautla, whose mayor is in jail awaiting trial for money laundering, 35-year-old Leocadio Lic bemoaned rampant corruption.

“Here we have a health center, but the sad thing is it has no medicine because of corruption,” he told AFP.

– Hasty policy plans –

The two contenders had radically different styles.

Morales was all smiles and charisma on the campaign trail, with few concrete policy pledges.

After surging in the polls, he hastily drafted formal policy proposals — which he had not done until then. He adopted the campaign slogan, “Not corrupt, not a thief.”

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 paid the price of being a political insider in a country fed up with politicians.

She also attacked Morales’ party, which was founded by former military officers, including some accused of committing atrocities during Guatemala’s civil war.

Morales has denied his party has anyone linked to abuses in its ranks.

But one of its newly elected lawmakers is Edgar Ovalle, a former officer accused of human rights violations during the war.

Until inauguration day on January 14, the country is in the hands of caretaker president Alejandro Maldonado, a former Constitutional Court judge.


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