From lewd jokes to power: Guatemala comic on course for presidency

By Alexandra Alper GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - For years, Guatemalan comedian Jimmy Morales earned a living cracking bawdy jokes on TV, riffing on eating condoms and the perils of being ravished by a bull. Now he looks set to become the troubled Central American country's next president. Running on an anti-corruption ticket, Morales rode a wave of public anger over a multi-million dollar customs scandal that led to the arrest of President Otto Perez last month, and he won the first round of voting on Sept. 6. Wooing crowds with tales of his humble upbringing and pledges to hand out millions of smartphones to children, the 46-year-old former comic actor is hot favorite to win an Oct. 25 run-off against leftist former first lady Sandra Torres. "He got my vote because I haven't heard him being accused of anything bad," said 54-year-old builder Nolberto Domingo. But Morales, a former theology student and self-proclaimed centrist, has raised some concerns with a six-page manifesto containing barely any detail on how he would govern. Critics have also questioned Morales' party, some of whose founders were, like Perez, members of the armed forces, a divisive institution in Guatemala's violent history. Some fear a Morales victory risks ending in farce. "What he knows how to do is to put on make-up," said Ricardo Barrientos, an economist at the Central American Institute of Tax studies, who described the public finance content of Morales' manifesto as "absolutely nil." While vowing to put more money into justice, make government spending transparent and audit institutions, Morales has said very little about how he would do it. He has dubbed a 1 percent royalty fee currently paid by foreign mining firms a "robbery" of Guatemala, but not yet said what he would do with it. He also avoids detailing his plans on taxes. "Talking about a tax reform right now in Guatemala would be like lighting the fuse of a powder keg," he told Reuters. With the political establishment in disgrace, Morales' lack of experience has been his main selling point and a recent survey by polling firm Felipe Noguera showed him beating Torres with 60 percent of the vote. Since returning to democracy in 1985, Guatemala has had a patchy record with its presidents, most of them from the right. One fled after his attempt to dismantle Congress and grab more power backfired, and another was jailed in the United States for taking bribes. Perez, a conservative, and his former vice president are now in custody awaiting trial after Guatemala's attorney general accused them of lining their pockets in the customs scam. EATING CONDOMS One of three children, Morales was born in 1969 in Guatemala City. His father, a radio announcer, died when he was just three, forcing the family to move in with relatives. Telling supporters how that start forced him to bathe in cold water as a child, and how he later sold bananas on the street, has helped win him support in a nation where over half the population lives in poverty. As a comedian, Morales found success in 2000 with "Moralejas," or "Morals", a show in which he and his brother Sammy goofed around as farmers, gangsters and alcoholics. In one U.S. tour video posted on YouTube in 2012, the brothers describe crossing the U.S. border in a cow costume. But they end up turning themselves in to authorities to avoid a run-in with an amorous bull. When Jimmy's character later complains his wife is expecting their 19th child, Sammy suggests condoms. "That garbage doesn't work," says Jimmy. "I've been taking one of them every night for the past three months and my wife got pregnant two months ago." In the film "An Awesome President," the two play political candidates who pledge to build overpasses running the length of rivers instead of bridges to cross them. "His political profile is to make fun of politics," said Edgar Gutierrez, a former foreign minister. Morales quit "Moralejas" last year to run for president. In April, polls gave him the backing of less than 1 percent of voters but he then surged as both Perez's government and the leading candidate's campaign became mired in corruption probes. In the first round, he led a field of 14 candidates, taking nearly 24 percent of the vote. It was a marked contrast to his first foray into politics in 2011, a failed run for town mayor. Before becoming a politician, Morales also made a film about Juan Jose Gerardi, a bishop murdered after publishing a report on human rights abuses in Guatemala's 1960-1996 civil war. The conflict pitted leftist insurgents against a string of military-led governments. Up to 250,000 people were killed with many atrocities committed by the army. Morales has downplayed historical links between his National Convergence Front (FCN) party and the army, saying that when he became leader in 2013, 99 percent of the FCN top brass was replaced by "trusted" political outsiders. Still, three of FCN's 11 recently-elected lawmakers are retired officers. (Additional Reporting by Sofia Menchu and Enrique Pretel in Guatemala City; Editing by Kieran Murray)