Comedian favored to win Guatemalan presidency with politicians in disrepute

Guatemalan presidential candidate Jimmy Morales, salutes before a political rally in downtown Guatemala City, in this October 22, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez/Files

By Alexandra Alper and Enrique Pretel GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - A former TV comedian with no experience in government is poised to win Guatemala's presidential election on Sunday after a corruption scandal toppled the country's last leader and fueled voter outrage with the political establishment. Playing up his outsider status and promising clean government, 46-year-old Jimmy Morales has surged in opinion polls since a probe into a multimillion-dollar customs racket led to the resignation and arrest of President Otto Perez. Voter surveys show Morales is set to easily win Sunday's run-off vote against former first lady Sandra Torres, who also vows to tackle corruption but is seen by many voters as part of the old political order. As voters made their way to polling stations across the country, many said they saw in the comedian an opportunity for a fresh start, and an end to the tainted political dealings that sparked nationwide protests and the eventual ouster of Perez last month. "I came to give my vote of confidence in somebody who has not been involved in politics and I hope he delivers," said Madelin de Mendez, a 60-year-old housewife, after voting for Morales in Guatemala City. Connecting with voters with tales of his humble origins and jokes from a 14-year stint on a sketch comedy show, Morales has faced criticism over fanciful policy ideas, like tagging teachers with GPS devices to make sure they show up in class. "I'm not being complacent," said Morales, flashing victory signs and dressed in a Guatemala soccer team shirt, after voting in a school in the town of Mixco, not far from the capital. "As a child, I was taught that you don't open presents until after midnight. So if God blesses us ... it would be a privilege for me to serve my nation." His manifesto runs to just six pages, giving few clues as to how he might govern, and his National Convergence Front (FCN) will have just 11 out of 158 seats in the next Congress. "He has no program and no team," said Hugo Novales, a political analyst at Guatemalan think tank ASIES. "But discontent is so high that those issues aren't a priority for your average voter." Just a few months ago, Morales was a rank outsider, but as probes by a U.N.-backed body targeting public sector corruption engulfed the government and the campaign of the election front-runner, the clean-cut comic surged into contention. One investigation found that Perez and his vice president were at the heart of the customs scam known as La Linea. After being impeached, stripped of his presidential immunity and arrested last month, Perez is now behind bars awaiting trial. Perez denies the allegations against him, but the scandal has sorely tested already shaky public trust in politicians. Morales' center-left opponent Torres, 60, has vowed to extend welfare programs that were once a hallmark of the presidency of Alvaro Colom, when she was first lady. Critics say Torres, whose National Unity of Hope (UNE) party has traditionally fared well in poor rural areas, used her role as the head of a powerful welfare committee under Colom to make state handouts dependent on political loyalty. Morales also has his detractors. The former funny man has had to reassure voters his party is not too close to the military, which played an often brutal role in Guatemala's 1960-1996 civil war. Some founders of his FCN, were, like Perez, members of the army, though Morales says the party's core is now civilian. After casting her vote in Guatemala City, Torres sought to tap into the discontent surrounding the country's political status quo by questioning Morales' links to the army and Perez. "The other candidate represents the past, and the old guard of suspect military men," she said. "We should really ask who is behind the candidate ... (Morales) is the continuation of Otto Perez." Others worry about the policy agenda of the onetime theology student, who has promised to hand out smartphones to kids and revive a territorial dispute with neighboring Belize. The comedian beat Torres in a first round of voting on Sept. 6 in a field of 14 candidates, but fell short of the 50 percent of votes needed to avoid a run-off. (Reporting By Sofia Menchu and Alexandra Alper; Editing by Kieran Murray and Eric Walsh)