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Former Comedian Wins Guatemala's Presidential Election

Jimmy Morales wins by a huge margin after running as an anti-corruption crusader, though some question whether he is really the political outsider he claims to be.

by Jeff Abbott
Oct 26 2015, 8:11am

Former TV comedian Jimmy Morales has won Guatemala's presidential elections by a large margin thanks to his image as an outsider and promises to tackle the kind of corruption that brought down the last elected president. 

Morales obtained 67 percent of the votes in a second round runoff against former first lady Sandra Torres.

The 46-year-old, who once made a film about a poor peasant who accidentally became president, had previously won a first round poll on September 6. That was three days after President Otto Pérez Molina resigned to face corruption allegations in an open court.

"I will strive with all my heart and with all my strength to not disappoint," Morales told supporters in a video message message broadcast on Sunday night. "I have received a mandate, and the mandate of the people of Guatemala is to fight against the corruption that has corroded us."

Morales, who during his comedy career has performed in blackface, ran with the slogan "Not corrupt, or a thief." He is due to be sworn into office on January 14 for a four-year term.

Morales' victory comes in the midst of an investigation into a customs fraud scam in which officials demanded kickbacks from importers in exchange for reducing their import tariffs. The investigation is spearheaded by a special UN-backed commission set up in 2007 to combat impunity in Guatemala, and was supported by massive demonstrations across the country over months that eventually forced the president to step down. President Pérez Molina is currently in pre-trial detention, as is his formed vice president Roxana Baldetti.

Related: Guatemalan President Resigns in Wake of Massive Corruption Scandal

"My candidacy is just part of the anti-corruption movement," Morales told the US outlet Breitbard, ahead of the elections. "I'm not a career politician. I am not a traditional politician, but I am a citizen who has tried to prepare to confront a corrupt political class that steals money from the state with impunity."

The theme of corruption was uppermost in the minds of many Guatemalans as they cast their votes on Sunday.

"We need to end this corruption that has permeated our government for many years," Patricia de Manzon, a 59 year old grandmother and resident of Guatemala City, told VICE News. "I am voting today because we all need the situation to be better in our country."

Photo by Saúl Martínez

But Morales' claim to be free of the sins of the traditional political class in Guatemala is called into question by his ties with shadowy figures within the Guatemalan military.

Related: Comedian Leading Guatemalan Presidential Race Accused of Being Front for the Military

His party, the National Convergence Front — Nation, was formed by retired military officers from the Association of Military Veterans of Guatemala. Though some of these have since left the party, some still figure among its financial backers.

"These are the military forces that were responsible for grave human rights violations during the internal armed conflict," said indigenous rights activist Andrea Ixchíu. "They will continue to find ways to cover up the crimes that they committed."

The veterans have been particularly active seeking to block efforts to obtain justice for atrocities committed during Guatemala's 36-year civil war — in which over 200,000 people were killed and over 45,000 forced disappearances — including the historic trial of former dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide.

Though the military officially handed government over to civilian political parties in Guatemala 1985, some of the country's leading politicians have army backgrounds. President Pérez Molina himself is a retired general.

"Jimmy is now surrounded by the same military forces that surrounded Otto Pérez Molina," Ixchíu said. "Voters swallowed the lie that he had nothing to do with the old political system, but this couldn't be further from the truth."

The defeated candidate, Torres, relied primarily on support in rural communities that recalled the anti-poverty programs she headed when she was first lady in the administration of Alvaro Colom. She divorced him at the end of his four-year term in an unsuccessful bid to run for president in 2011.

But while Torres sought to attack Morales by highlighting his inexperience, she was hampered by the stigma of being perceived as representing politics as usual. Her National Unity in Hope party was among several that allegedly received illegal funds from major companies and drug trafficking organizations documented in a report released in July this year by the same UN-sponsored investigative commission that is currently probing former president Pérez Molina.

Ixchíu was one of the many Guatemalans who chose to not vote on Sunday, with turnout dropping to 53 percent from 72 percent figure in the first round. "We have no sympathy for these candidates," she said.

The voting center in Guatemala's historic center was situated in a poorly lit parking facility underneath the city's central square. Election observers and volunteers looked on with little to do as voters trickled in only sporadically.

"The low percentage of attendance is the evidence that the population is not satisfied with the current options," Juan José Narciso, a political analyst from the Guatemalan-based think tank Demos told leading local newspaper Prensa Libre.

Follow Jeff Abbott on Twitter: @palabrasdeabajo

Tagged:
Corruption
Elections
Otto Perez Molina
CICIG
Jimmy Morales
sandra torres