Guatemala's presidential election appears headed to runoff

With more than 96 percent of polling stations reporting Monday, comedian Jimmy Morales, who has never held elective office, was leading with 24 percent of the vote for Guatemala's next president. The top two finishers in the field of 14 will advance to a runoff to be held Oct. 25.

Luis Soto/AP
Presidential candidate Jimmy Morales of the National Front of Convergence party, listens to a question during a press conference in Guatemala City, early Monday, Sept. 7, 2015.

A former television comic was heading for a runoff with either a wealthy businessman or a former first lady in voting for Guatemala's next president, days after the Central American nation's leader resigned over a corruption scandal.

With more than 96 percent of polling stations reporting Monday, comedian Jimmy Morales, who has never held elective office, was leading with 24 percent of the vote.

Businessman and longtime politician Manuel Baldizon and ex-first lady Sandra Torres were in a tie, each with about 19.4 percent. Baldizon led Torres by less than 800 votes among nearly 5 million votes cast.

The top two finishers in the field of 14 will advance to a runoff to be held Oct. 25.

Analyst Christians Castillo said Morales' surprising performance was a sign of voter discontent, "a vote of punishment" against more traditional candidates.

Electoral officials estimated a nearly 80 percent turnout.

The candidates in Sunday's election faced an uncomfortable challenge: trying to win votes in a nation where former President Otto 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 has acknowledged Guatemalans' disgust with crime, corruption and impunity. His campaign website vows 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 is proposing a coalition government to respond to the concerns of outraged citizens.

A key question going into the election was the level of protest vote in the face of the customs corruption scandal, which also forced Perez Molina's previous vice president, Roxana Baldetti, to resign. She, too, is accused in the scheme. But the number of null or blank votes was minimal.

Guatemalans were also voting for vice president, members of Congress and the Central American Parliament, and local authorities for municipalities nationwide.

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