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Corruption-weary Guatemalans choose new president

Monday, September 7, 2015 - 06:45
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A woman casts her vote at a polling station during general elections in Guatemala City, on Sept 6, 2015.

[GUATEMALA CITY] Guatemalans voted on Sunday in general elections amid widespread outrage with the government, just days after the country's president resigned and was jailed to face prosecution on corruption charges.

The race has been rocked by the customs bribery scandal that felled president Otto Perez, sparked protests on a scale never before seen in the impoverished Central American nation and fueled indignation with the traditional political elite.

Caretaker President Alejandro Maldonado, who was sworn in Thursday after Perez resigned, called on Guatemalans to "never forget what the people are capable of," after casting his ballot at a school in Guatemala City's historic center.

"People must use their votes to punish candidates who deceive them," said Maldonado, who will hold the post until an elected successor is inaugurated on January 14.

Some protesters had called for the vote to be postponed until widespread reforms could be implemented, but the national electoral tribunal rejected all petitions for a delay.

Amid fears that many of the country's 7.5 million voters would stay home, the head of the electoral tribunal said mid-morning that turnout was "acceptable enough," declining to give a figure but adding: "There's still time for it to go up." The United Nations led calls for voters to cast their ballots peacefully, amid warnings of potential violence after the turbulent run-up to election day.

Clashes on Friday night between supporters from different parties left one person dead in the southern town of Santa Barbara, marring an otherwise violence-free campaign.

Adding to the angry, unsettled mood, residents in some communities threatened to beat up any outsiders who showed up to vote in their precincts.

There were no violent incidents reported as voting got under way, though officials said there were several reports of protesters erecting road blocks to stop local candidates from busing in outsiders.

Authorities have deployed 35,000 police to provide security.

TUMULTUOUS RACE

Perez submitted his resignation just before midnight on Wednesday, after Congress stripped him of his presidential immunity and a judge issued a warrant for his arrest.

By Thursday evening, he was in jail pending prosecution on corruption charges.

Prosecutors and investigators from a special UN commission tasked with fighting high-level graft in Guatemala accuse the former president of orchestrating a scheme that allowed importers to pay bribes to get illegal discounts on their customs duty.

The scheme - dubbed "La Linea" (the line), for a hotline businesses allegedly called to access a network of corrupt officials - collected US$3.8 million in bribes between May 2014 and April 2015, including US$800,000 to Perez, prosecutors allege.

The former president has denied any involvement. A judge will decide on Tuesday whether to indict him.

The scandal, which erupted in April, and the anger it triggered among Guatemalans upended the race for Sunday's vote.

The final opinion poll, released on Thursday, gave the lead to comedian Jimmy Morales, a political novice who rose to fame playing a simpleton who accidentally ends up becoming president.

The poll gave Morales 25 per cent of the vote, long-time frontrunner and right-wing lawyer Manuel Baldizon 22.9 per cent and former first lady Sandra Torres 18.4 per cent.

If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent, the top two will face off in a runoff on October 25.

Perez, a retired general who had been in power since 2012, was constitutionally ineligible to stand for reelection. As a criminal suspect currently in custody, he will not be allowed to vote.

ONGOING PROTESTS

In Guatemala City, several hundred people demonstrated Saturday, some dressed in black and carrying cardboard coffins and a tombstone for a "stillborn" election.

But the protest movement was split over whether to take part in the polls.

In the central indigenous village of San Juan Sacatepequez, 32-year-old furniture maker Carlos Cuyuch said the corruption scandals "encourage us even more to look for new leaders, to be able to demand better of them." Indigenous Guatemalans, who make up 40 per cent of the population but are largely poor and marginalised, have been a key group in the protest movement.

Voters are also choosing a 158-seat Congress, 338 mayors and 20 delegates to the Central American regional parliament.

The corruption accusations have stoked outrage in a country where 53.7 per cent of the population lives in poverty and the scars of a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996 are still fresh.

Besides poverty and corruption, Guatemalans endure horrific crime rates and powerful, vicious street gangs blamed for giving the country one of the world's highest murder rates.

AFP