GUATEMALA CITY—A comedian with no political experience looks poised to become Guatemala’s next president when the country votes Sunday in a runoff election, amid the fallout of a massive corruption scandal.
Jimmy Morales, a comic actor famous for playing a country bumpkin who nearly becomes president, heads into the vote with a huge lead—68 percent to 32 percent for former first lady Sandra Torres, according to the final opinion poll.
It has been a remarkable ride for the conservative candidate, who started the race with just 0.5 percent support back in April.
His surge has capped a tumultuous campaign rocked by president Otto Perez’s resignation and arrest on corruption charges on September 3, three days before the first round of voting.
Perez, who is in jail awaiting trial, is accused of masterminding a corrupt network of politicians and customs officials that allowed businesses to pay bribes to get illegal discounts on import duties.
Prosecutors and United Nations investigators say the network collected $3.8 million in bribes between May 2014 and April 2015—including $800,000 each to Perez and jailed ex-vice president Roxana Baldetti.
The scandal, the worst in a string of recent corruption cases, has created an unprecedented climate of outrage in Guatemala, an impoverished Central American country torn by gang violence and still recovering from a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.
Thousands of protesters, including from the country’s large and historically marginalized indigenous population, took to the streets in the weeks leading up to the elections, pressing an ultimately successful campaign for Perez to quit.
Morales rode that wave of anger to a surprise victory in the first-round vote, claiming 24 percent to 20 percent for social democrat Torres in a crowded field of candidates.
The two contenders have radically different styles.
Morales, 46, is all smiles and charisma on the campaign trail, with few concrete policy pledges.
He has though called fighting graft is his biggest aim and on the eve of the vote said he wanted the UN commission on high-level corruption in the country to carry on its work.
Torres, 60, has an image as a steely and uncompromising manager from her time running the government’s social programs during the administration of her ex-husband, Alvaro Colom (2008-2012).