Corruption-weary Guatemalans to choose new president
Polling stations opened at 7:00 am (1300 GMT) across the impoverished Central American nation, with 7.5 million voters eligible to cast ballots for president, vice president, a new Congress, 388 mayors and members of a regional parliament.
Calm prevailed as voting began although anti-corruption protests were expected in Guatemala City as residents head to the polls.
Television showed lines forming outside polling stations. At some, table workers began the day with a prayer and played the national anthem.
Clashes on Saturday between supporters from different parties left one person dead and resulted in 26 arrests in the southern town of Santa Barbara, marring an otherwise violence-free run-up to the elections.
Adding to the angry, unsettled mood, residents in some communities have threatened to beat up outsiders who show up to vote in their precincts.
Some 35,000 police officers were deployed to keep order during the election, which comes just days after president Otto Perez was forced to resign to face corruption charges after months of protests.
Leading the presidential race in pre-election polls is comedian Jimmy Morales, a political novice who rose to fame playing a simpleton who accidentally ends up becoming president.
A poll released Thursday put Morales slightly ahead with 25 percent of the vote, while long-time frontrunner and right-wing lawyer Manuel Baldizon trailed at 22.9 percent.
Former first lady Sandra Torres held 18.4 percent.
The election caps a tumultuous week that reinforced many voters’ belief that the polls are meaningless without a massive clean-up of the political system.
On Tuesday, Congress lifted immunity from prosecution for Perez, who stands accused of overseeing a massive corruption customs scheme. By Wednesday he had stepped down from office and was arrested the following day on a court order.
As a criminal suspect, he cannot vote.
“We wanted them to push back the elections so that we could have change in the electoral law,” human rights activist Ivonne Alvarez, 63, told AFP during a protest Saturday, adding that she would not vote.
– Ongoing protests –
Protesters have long called for an overhaul of the political system to purge corruption, which accounts for 50 percent of party financing, according to the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies.
In Guatemala City Saturday, several hundred people demonstrated, with some dressed in black and carrying cardboard coffins and a tombstone.
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.
The former president has denied any involvement.
A judge on Tuesday will decide whether to indict Perez formally.
– Disillusionment –
Promises to clean up the country’s political situation have been a common campaign theme.
“One of the top challenges and priorities of my government will be an all-out war on corruption,” former first lady Torres said.
Morales says he is the only candidate not tainted by corruption and touts having campaigned 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.
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.
Voters will also choose a new vice president, a 158-seat Congress, 338 mayors and 20 delegates to a Central American regional parliament.
Until the inauguration in January, the country is in the hands of President Alejandro Maldonado, who donned the presidential sash Thursday in a hastily organized ceremony.
– Corruption, poverty, murder –
Perez, in power since 2012, was already constitutionally unable to seek another term as president but had long defied mounting calls to resign.
The scandal was uncovered by investigators from a UN commission tasked with fighting high-level graft in Guatemala.
The accusations have stoked outrage in a country where 53.7 percent of the population lives in poverty and where the scars from a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996 are still fresh.
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.