The tumultuous political situation in Guatemala took yet another a surprising turn on Sunday when the country's voters headed to the polls to elect a new president. With all of the ballots counted, Jimmy Morales — a former comedian known for performing in blackface — received the largest majority of votes, though not enough to win the election outright. A run-off is now scheduled for October.
With former president Otto Perez Molina sitting in jail on election day for his alleged role in a customs fraud scheme, Morales' campaign slogan "Not corrupt, or a thief" seemed to resonate with voters. The 46-year-old center-nationalist received more than 24 percent of the vote, the most of any candidate but far short of the 50 percent needed for an outright victory.
The race for second place and a spot in the October run-off is tight. Former first lady Sandra Torres pulled ahead of conservative businessman and previous favorite Manuel Baldizon early Monday morning. Torres' UNE party won 19.58 percent of the vote, and Baldizon's LIDER received 19.48 percent.
Many analysts thought Morales was a longshot to win, and did not consider him to be a serious candidate. He has drawn comparisons to Donald Trump, the blustery hopeful for the Republican nomination in the US presidential race, and gained notoriety for his comedy show Moralejas, which has run for 15 years on Guatemalan TV. He has been ridiculed and criticized for his racism toward the country's indigenous Mayans, and for performing skits in blackface. He has also echoed other Guatemalan leaders in denying that a genocide of indigenous Mayans occurred during the country's civil war.
Though Morales is inexperienced, the presidential race wasn't his first foray into politics. He lost a mayoral race in the 2011 election. This time around, Morales received endorsements and support from members of the military, including from disgraced ex-president Perez Molina's Patriots Party, which provided the candidate with logistical support. Morales' National Convergence Front party also has deep ties to the old-guard in the Guatemalan military.
"My program in a nutshell: complete openness," Morales said Sunday, according to Reuters. "The people will be our partner in government."
Morales has pledged to fight poverty by improving education and decentralizing the budget and government powers. He also says he will distribute smartphones to Guatemala's children.
"The media can be present in all negotiations, in all contract signings, in all purchases so it is clear who is responsible when things go wrong," he said, adding that he would propose a popular vote on whether to form a constitutional assembly alongside the country's discredited Congress if he wins the run-off.
Many have argued that the elections were flawed from the beginning, and called for the vote to be delayed due to the corruption scandal that upended Perez Molina's administration. This atmosphere of popular dissatisfaction led many Guatemalans to abstain from voting.
"Most of the candidates put forth don't look honest to me," Olivia Petronila Ajuliac, a voter in Guatemala City, told VICE News. "But if I would have stayed in my house, I wouldn't be able to have an opinion later. I came to vote in order to put forth demands in the future."
According to the Guatemalan Supreme Electoral Council, nearly 10 percent of ballots were submitted either blank or null. It is estimated that less than 65 percent of Guatemala's 7 million eligible voters took part in the election.
Polling stations in the capital Guatemala City were mostly quiet, but voting in rural areas was reportedly plagued by violence, intimidation, fraud, and confusion. In the community of San Sebastian in the northern department of Huehuetenango, Baldizon's LIDER party was accused of paying voters 300 quetzales ($40) for their support. In the municipality of Coban in Alta Verapaz, the party allegedly ferried people from other parts of the country to sway the vote.
"This represents the perversion of the system," Helmer Velasquez, a member of the electoral observers, told VICE News. In total, the Guatemalan Public Ministry reported 780 official complaints during the election.
Accusations over fraud in San Jose del Golfo, a municipality that has faced conflict over the construction of a gold mine, led to a confrontation between LIDER party supporters and members of the resistance group La Puya. The Guatemalan National Police deployed anti-riot police to the municipality, and detained two La Puya members who were reportedly trying to report complaints against the mayor for bringing people from outside the town to vote.
The night before the election, a fight in the department of Suchitepequez between LIDER supporters and backers of the UNE party left one person dead and four injured, and led to 25 arrests.
After Perez Molina resigned last week, Congress transferred power to his vice president, Alejandro Maldonado, who is set to leave office in January.
Follow Jeff Abbott on Twitter: @palabrasdeabajo
Reuters contributed to this report