Graft-weary Guatemala elects comedian as president

President-elect Jimmy Morales (right), of the National Front Convergence, delivers a speech next to his wife Hilda Marroquin.
President-elect Jimmy Morales (right), of the National Front Convergence, delivers a speech next to his wife Hilda Marroquin.PHOTO: AFP

GUATEMALA CITY (AFP) - Comedian Jimmy Morales won a landslide victory in Guatemala's presidential race on Sunday (Oct 25) despite having no political experience, after a campaign upended by a corruption scandal that felled the outgoing president.

Morales, a comic actor and TV personality, declared victory as election officials released the resounding results: 68 per cent of the vote for the conservative candidate to 32 per cent for former first lady Sandra Torres, with 97 per cent 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 Morales, who started the race with just 0.5 per cent support back in April.

The campaign was rocked by president Otto Perez's resignation and arrest on corruption charges on Sept 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 US$3.8 million (S$5.3 million) in bribes between May 2014 and April 2015 - including US$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 per cent to 20 per cent for Torres, who was running for social democratic party UNE.

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.

"Things are really bad," said textile salesman Francisco Estrada.

"The next president must at least purge the police and clean up the government."

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

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

On the campaign trail, she 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 Jan 14, the country is in the hands of caretaker president Alejandro Maldonado, a former Constitutional Court judge.