San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Guatemala

Graft-weary Guatemalans to choose new president

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — Guatemalans disgusted with rampant corruption that felled their president are set to vote Sunday in elections many see as meaningless without a vast political system cleanup.

Ironically, out of the blue, the frontrunner in the presidential race is a comedian, Jimmy Morales, a political novice who rose to fame clowning around as a simpleton who accidentally ends up becoming president.

The election — Guatemalans are so fed up with politics-as-usual that turnout could be very low — caps a tumultuous week in the impoverished Central American nation saddled with a bevy of woes.

Otto Pérez Molina, accused of overseeing a massive corruption scheme as president that allegedly milked the customs agency, saw his immunity from prosecution lifted by Congress on Tuesday.

He resigned Wednesday and was promptly arrested on a court order. The elections will take place with him watching from jail as he awaits more legal proceedings. As a criminal suspect, he cannot vote.

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.

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.

Many say the vote should be postponed until sweeping reforms can be enacted. Some have called for people to purposely spoil their ballots.

“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 Juárez, 45, from the citizen group Another Guatemala Now.

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

Disillusionment

“It is the first time in Guatemala that low turnout looks possible,” said Reyna de León, of ONU Mujeres Guatemala, a U.N.-backed agency working for gender equality.

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

Prosecutors say Pérez Molina, 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.

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

In an initial arraignment, Pérez Molina 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 Pérez Molina formally.

With Guatemalans increasingly exasperated with the establishment, the long-time frontrunner in the presidential race, right-wing lawyer Manuel Baldizón, has been overtaken by Morales, the comedian and political outsider.

Voters will also choose a new vice president, 150 lawmakers and 20 delegates to the Central American regional parliament, PARLACEN.

Morales, 46, has 25 percent support to 22.9 percent for Baldizon and 18.4 percent for former first lady Sandra Torres, according to a poll released Thursday.

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

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.

Place-holder president

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

Pérez Molina, in power since 2012, was constitutionally unable to seek another term as president.

He had long defied mounting calls for his resignation, but was left with little choice after Congress stripped him of his presidential immunity and a judge issued a warrant for his arrest.

The accusations have stoked outrage in the country of 15 million, 53.7 percent of whom live in poverty, and where the scars from a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996 are still fresh.

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

Morales, the candidate of a conservative party called the National Convergence Front, has no experience in politics. He is promising clean government to restore Guatemalans’ faith in their institutions.

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.

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