Graft-weary Guatemalans to choose a new president

Guatemalan presidential candidate for the Renewed Democratic Liberty party, Manuel Baldizon looks on before a meeting with elders in Guatemala City on Sept 5, 2015.
Guatemalan presidential candidate for the Renewed Democratic Liberty party, Manuel Baldizon looks on before a meeting with elders in Guatemala City on Sept 5, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

GUATEMALA CITY (AFP) - Guatemalans disgusted with rampant corruption that felled their president are set to vote on 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. He is Jimmy Morales, who rose to fame clowning around as a simpleton who accidentally ends up becoming president.

The election caps a tumultuous week in the impoverished Central American nation saddled with a bevy of woes.

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

He resigned on 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.

Demonstrators dressed in black and carrying cardboard coffins will take to the streets Saturday to stage what they call an electoral burial.

Many say the vote should be postponed until sweeping reforms can be enacted.

"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," Isabel Juarez, 45, of an NGO called Another Guatemala Now. It has been staging weekly rallies since April, when the customs scheme was discovered.

People are so fed up with politics as usual that turnout could be very low.

"It is the first time in Guatemala that low turnout looks possible," said Reyna de Leon, of ONU Mujeres Guatemala, a UN-backed agency working for gender equality.

"People do not easily forget what happened in previous governments," she added.

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.

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.

With Guatemalans increasingly exasperated with politics-as-usual, the long-time frontrunner in the presidential race, right-wing lawyer Manuel Baldizon, has been overtaken by Morales, the comic and political outsider.

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

Morales, aged 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.

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.

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

Perez, in power since 2012, was barred from seeking another term.

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 this 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 UN 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 earned his notoriety 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.