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Sep 7, 2015 10:43 PM

Guatemalan revolt against establishment extends to election

The Associated Press

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) A citizen revolt against Guatemala's political establishment that helped oust former President Otto Perez Molina in the midst of a corruption scandal appears to have continued at the ballot box.

Voters choosing a new president Sunday rendered the pre-scandal favorite to third place, possibly shoving him out of the runoff in favor of a former television comedian with no political experience.

But they showed their lukewarm enthusiasm for the entire slate of 14 candidates who most considered as representing the status quo in the small Central American country. The leader going into the Oct. 25 runoff, Jimmy Morales, only got just under 24 percent of the vote with more than 98 percent of ballots counted Monday.

Longtime politician Manuel Baldizon, who was widely expected to be the next president before the customs corruption scandal took down top government officials, was in a fight to make the runoff, narrowly trailing former first lady Sandra Torres, who had 19.7 percent to Baldizon's 19.6 percent. He trailed Torres by more than 5,000 votes of at least 5 million cast.

"The results put us in the second round," Torres said at a press conference, adding that the trend in her favor is irreversible.

Baldizon did not speak publicly Monday.

"This is the political collapse of Manuel Baldizon that no one could have imagined," said Daniel Haering, professor at the University of Francisco Marroquin government school. "From now on, Guatemalan politicians are going to have to respond to various political demands of the people."

Luis Fernando Mack, a professor at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Guatemala, said the electoral tribunal has a delicate situation on its hands and important decisions to make to resolve the fight for second place.

"The fight will be fierce, they're going to fight for every vote," Mack said.

Electoral tribunal judge Julio Solorzano said it was the first time the country had experienced so close a result for the No. 2 spot in a runoff. He also said the turnout was the highest seen so far in a democratic election in Guatemala, 70 percent, slightly higher than the turnout for 2011.

The candidates in Sunday's election faced the difficult task of gaining popular support in a country where Perez Molina remains in court custody awaiting a decision on whether he will be tried on graft charges.

Most of the candidates were old-guard figures picked to run before energized prosecutors backed by a mass anti-corruption movement toppled Perez Molina's administration. Many voters were so skeptical that they campaigned for the election itself to be postponed to give them a new crop of choices.

Morales boasted of his outsider status and said he is part of the uprising against corruption. He has promised greater transparency, including media review of government contracts.

Baldizon had led most polls with roughly 30 percent backing. His running mate is accused by prosecutors of influence trafficking, but as a candidate enjoys immunity from prosecution.

Baldizon acknowledged Guatemalans' disgust with crime, corruption and impunity. His campaign website vowed a "modernization of the democratic state" to reform government and combat poverty and social inequality.

Torres divorced former President Alvaro Colom ahead of the last presidential race to try to get around rules barring presidential relatives from running, but was still ruled ineligible. A businesswoman and longtime political party figure, she proposed a coalition government to respond to the concerns of outraged citizens.

The customs corruption scandal, uncovered by prosecutors and a U.N. commission known as CICIG, which is investigating criminal networks in the country, involved a scheme known as "La Linea," or "The Line," believed to have defrauded the state of millions.

Perez Molina is in custody and faces accusations that he was involved in the scheme in which businesspeople paid bribes to avoid import duties through Guatemala's customs agency. He is the first Guatemalan president to resign.

Many of the thousands of protesters who took to the streets in recent months demanding Perez Molina's resignation and the postponing of Sunday's vote later called for a protest vote of blank ballots in the face of the scandal, which also forced Perez Molina's previous vice president, Roxana Baldetti, to resign. She is jailed and facing charges in the corruption scheme.

But the number of null or blank votes Sunday was minimal, according to the official count.


Associated Press writer Alberto Arce contributed to this report from Guatemala City.


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