(Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Presidential Candidate Sandra Torres was a member of the guerrillas during the country’s 36-year civil war. InSight Crime regrets the error.)
Jimmy Morales, the leader of a political party founded by ex-military personnel, won the first round of Guatemala’s presidential elections September 6. A runoff is scheduled for October 25 between Morales and whoever won second place, which has yet to be determined.
Morales, who heads the National Convergence Front (Frente de Convergencia Nacional – FCN) and describes his ideology as “Christian Nationalism,” thanked God as the final results trickled in, showing he had won close to a quarter of the votes.
Second place remained in dispute between Manuel Baldizon, a longtime power broker from Peten state, and Sandra Torres, a former leftist militant-turned first lady, who once fostered programs for the poor in rural areas. Authorities are expected to announce who will contend for the presidency by September 8, in what is sure to be a highly contested result regardless of who is declared the winner.
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There were few reported incidents of violence and vote tampering, even while Guatemala goes through a difficult transition. President Otto Perez Molina resigned and was arrested for corruption just days before the elections. His former vice president, Roxana Baldetti, is also in jail and facing similar charges.
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Morales says he is popular because he has never held public office, and thus has not been tainted by the corruption that dogs career politicians. But in some key ways, Morales represents a continuation of Perez Molina’s discredited administration. Guatemala’s current government is littered with ex-military personnel, who were snagged in corruption scandals that often reached back to their days in the army.
Although Morales denies that he has any contact with military officials, Morales’ party, the FCN, was formed in large part by former military personnel from the right-wing Guatemalan Military Veterans Association (Asociacion de Veteranos Militares de Guatemala – AVEMILGUA). Morales was also schooled, in part, by Perez Molina’s secretary of intelligence, Ricardo Bustamante. Meanwhile, one of Morales’ top campaign operatives has been linked to a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the early 1980s.
Morales’ discourse is nationalistic, evoking words like honor and dignity, but it is also religious, frequently citing biblical references and stirring ecclesiastical passion. The former comedian — who spent 15 years making Guatemalans laugh in sometimes questionable ways, which some might describe as racist (see below) — is an able orator and debater. He is also well educated, with degrees in theology and business.
— hedonistaustero (@pereradaniel) September 7, 2015
Morales’ victory does not necessarily make him the front-runner for the second round. Both Baldizon and Torres have strong followings in rural Guatemala, which could tip the scales in their favor come October 25.
For his part, Baldizon has been campaigning since the last election in 2011, which he lost to Perez Molina in a runoff. Baldizon’s ability to run this near non-stop campaign — with at least four helicopters at his disposal — has raised concerns about his sources of political financing.
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While he has never faced charges, Baldizon’s candidate for vice president, Edgar Barquin, has been ensnared in a money laundering scandal. Should Barquin be formally indicted, Baldizon may have to drop from the race.
Meanwhile, Sandra Torres is well known to Guatemalans as a former first lady during the Alvaro Colom administration (2008 to 2012). The former first couple have since separated, but Torres retains much of her support in rural Guatemala, which helped Colom win the presidency in 2007.
Neither Torres nor Baldizon have a clear advantage going into the runoff. Nor is it clear how much the corruption scandals that have rocked the nation will play a role in the coming weeks, between the first and the second round.
In addition to Barquin’s legal dilemma, there are other potentially damaging charges against the final candidates that may emerge. As evidenced by Perez Molina’s fall and arrest, Guatemala’s anti-impunity commission, known as the CICIG, and the Attorney General’s Office have recently made it a habit to issue damaging charges against whoever they find in their investigations.
In the end, by October 25, Guatemalans may be voting for what might literally be the last man — or woman — standing.