A television comedian was elected president of Guatemala Sunday night after a wave of protests and widespread public anger over corruption helped oust the Central American country’s previous government.
Former first lady Sandra Torres conceded defeat to Jimmy Morales in the runoff vote after returns showed Morales garnered 69 percent of the vote with 94 percent of the polling stations reporting.
“We recognize Jimmy Morales’ triumph and we wish him success,” Torres said. “Guatemala has serious problems, but the people made their choice and we respect it.”
The runoff was held a month and a half after President Otto Perez Molina resigned and was jailed in connection with a sprawling customs scandal. His former vice president has also been jailed in the multimillion-dollar graft and fraud scheme.
Though the protests have died down since Perez Molina’s resignation, many Guatemalans remain fed up with corruption and politics as usual, and Morales will face pressure to deliver immediately on widespread demands for reform.
“The important thing is that the next government avoids corruption,” said Alexander Pereira, an insurance salesman who was the first to vote at one polling place. “I hope that the next government really makes a change. We had an achievement in kicking out the last government.”
Javier Zepeda, executive director of the Chamber of Industry, said his business group had observed the vote and estimated turnout at around 45 percent to 50 percent, which would be down 20 points from the first round.
“The people already showed their rejection of corruption (in the previous vote) where they kicked politicians out,” Zepeda said.
Morales and Torres were the top two vote-getters in the first round Sept. 6, when presumed front-runner Manuel Baldizon finished a surprising third — a result considered to be a rejection of Guatemala’s political establishment in the wake of the corruption scandal.
The protests began in April after the corruption scandal involving bribery at the customs agency was unveiled by Guatemalan prosecutors and a U.N. commission that is investigating criminal networks in the country.
Investigators first targeted former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, whose personal secretary was named as the alleged ringleader of the scheme, and then Perez Molina.
Morales, like Torres, promised to keep Attorney General Thelma Aldana, a key figure in the investigation, and the U.N. commission in place. He also vowed to strengthen controls and transparency, saying in a debate this past week that the government has controls and auditing powers at its disposal.
“All the elements for auditing available to the presidency and vice presidency are going to be put to work,” Morales said.
But ahead of the runoff, many Guatemalans remained skeptical that either candidate would work to root out entrenched corruption and find honest public servants to form a government.
“I’ve seen the forums and debates and I’m not convinced,” said Oneida de Bertrand, a homemaker who took part in the protests. “They say what we all know about how the country is, but when it comes time to make proposals they don’t say how.”