By Marion V. Ali
Guatemala’s comic actor, 46 year old Jimmy Morales, has won a surprise victory in the first round of Guatemala’s presidential election, but did not secure enough votes to avoid an October runoff.
Of the 14 presidential candidates, Morales won 24 percent of Sunday’s vote.
The competition for second place was a tight race between businessman Manuel Baldizón and former first lady Sandra Torres, both of whom received a little more than 19 percent of the vote.
After trailing during much of the count, Ms. Torres edged out Mr. Baldizón by just over 2,000 votes. Because no one topped 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will face off on October 25.
Morales, who barely registered in the polls earlier this year, campaigned as a political outsider, with the slogan: “Neither corrupt nor a thief.”
“My main priority is to fight corruption. If we don’t restore the morality in the government, nothing else can work”, Morales said in an interview Saturday over breakfast.
The scheduled election came three days after President Otto Pérez Molina resigned and was jailed in connection with a customs fraud scandal. Vice President Alejandro Maldonado was sworn in until the winner of the runoff takes office on January 14.
Guatemalans have protested since April, when a United Nations-led anti-crime agency unearthed a customs fraud scheme that involved senior government officials.
The vice president at the time, Roxana Baldetti, resigned soon after and landed in jail. She and Perez Molina have denied the allegations against them.
Baldizón, whose party’s lawmakers in Congress supported Pérez Molina until days before he was arrested, had been leading by wide margins in recent months, but his popularity waned as the scandal involving Perez Moline mushroomed..
Former President Perez Molina came to power in 2012 “on a promise of security”. Among other things, he promised zero tolerance for crime, the creation of maximum-security prisons and a professional police force.
The country’s police force, however, remains poorly trained and lacking resources, with little progress in reform, partly due to corruption.
The living conditions of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples, coupled with poverty and the reform of the electoral process, are also issues of priority for that country.
Perez Molina, who addressed the Guatemalan court last Friday, denied taking any bribes and promised to co-operate with the investigation.
“The first thing I want to deny: I don’t belong to La Linea”, he said.
“Your honour, I am not going to risk my dignity, my work, nor all the effort I have made for Guatemala in return for $800,000”, he said, referring to the amount prosecutors allege he received illegally.