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Guatemala Holds Presidential Election Despite Calls for Delay Amid Corruption Scandal

Guatemalans are headed to the polls to elect a new leader just three days after a scandal forced ex-president Otto Perez Molina to resign and landed him in jail.

by Jeff Abbott
Sep 6 2015, 3:20pm

Photo by Esteban Biba/EPA

Just three days after a corruption scandal forced Guatemala's president to resign and landed him behind bars, the country's voters are heading to the polls to elect a new leader.

The favorites in the race are Jimmy Morales, a 46-year-old centrist and comedian whose slogan is "not corrupt, not a thief," former first lady Sandra Torres, and Manuel Baldizón, a conservative businessman. 

Guatemala's leftist parties have also mobilized to try to take advantage of the frustration with ex-president Otto Perez Molina and his center-right Patriot Party. The movement has been especially strong with Winaq, one of the country's only indigenous political parities.

"This crisis has fostered the movement of the left to connect with the social movements," Amilcar Pop, a congressional deputy candidate and Winaq's general secretary, told VICE News. "It has helped recuperate the paper of the left, which hasn't historically participated with the social movements."

More than seven million Guatemalans are eligible to vote on Sunday for 333 mayors, 158 congressional deputies, and a new president. The vote comes the day after hundreds of protesters marched through Guatemala City demanding the election be suspended or delayed.

Related: Guatemala's Jailed Ex-President Claims He Turned Down a Huge Bribe From 'El Chapo'

"Today, more than ever, the Guatemalan left, and the left in the world, needs to fly the banner of transparency and anti-corruption," Pop said.

Pop and others in the Guatemalan left have taken steps to present voters with an alternative to the corruption of Pérez Molina's administration. Several members of Perez Molina's cabinet have resigned because of their alleged involvement in a customs fraud network that stole $120 million from taxpayers.

Perez Molina is being investigated for money laundering, and will likely face likely charges of criminal association, taking bribes, and customs fraud. Vice President Alejandro Maldonado is now serving out the remainder of Pérez Molina's term, which ends January 14.

Perez Molina's administration was also responsible for selling swathes of land to national and international companies interested in extracting natural resources. The country's leftist parties have called for a more transparent government, and for increased taxes on the mining and extractive industries.

When the political crisis began in April 2015, Pop was among the first to denounce Pérez Molina and his former vice president Roxana Baldetti, who resigned on May 8 and now faces charges of illicit association, bribery, and fraud. The corruption was revealed by a joint investigation by the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and the Guatemalan Public Ministry. Pop says he faced death threats for his part in raising the charges against the president.

Related: Guatemala's Former President Is Jailed as Protesters Oppose Weekend Election

Pop's Winaq is a young political party. It was formed in 2010 by Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, who served as the head of the organization for two years. Following her departure as head of the party in 2012, Pop, a lawyer, took the position. The same year he became one of the only indigenous members of the Guatemalan congress. His party is young for other reasons as well: The majority of its members are under the age of 30.

Historically, leftist parties have been weak in Guatemala, but they hope today to capitalize on the popular movement that has emerged against corruption, and against politics as usual. But the left has a lot of ground to make up, and it faces an uphill battle to win the hearts and minds of voters in regions that have long suffered from the politics of patronage.

According to statistics compiled by journalist Ben Parker, in the last few elections leftist parties have only won around 2.3 percent of the vote, and managed to win three seats in Congress. The major challenge in this election for the left — and for the leading candidates — is the growing movement calling for a null vote, or completely abstaining from voting. Many youth look upon the political parties, both left and right, as being a reflection of the corrupt system.

If, as expected, no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote on Sunday, the top two candidates will participate in a runoff on October 25.

Follow Jeff Abbott on Twitter: @palabrasdeabajo

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