Next Guatemala president must respond to restive populace

AP News
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Posted: Oct 22, 2015 6:19 PM
Next Guatemala president must respond to restive populace

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — A TV comic and a former first lady will vie for Guatemala's presidency Sunday, and the winner will face a tide of public anger at politicians that already drove the last elected president and vice president from office in disgrace.

The country will have either its first female president or its first political neophyte in the office. Whichever it is, the victor will have to respond quickly to demands for deep reform, said Alejandro Maldonado, who took over as interim president after Otto Perez Molina swapped the presidential palace for a prison cell Sept. 3.

"The new government will have a year before the people fill the plazas, streets, avenues and highways in social protest," Maldonado said during a recent speech to business executives. "And it could once again be successful."

In Sunday's presidential runoff, comedian Jimmy Morales, who boasted of his outsider status on the campaign trail, faces Sandra Torres, a businesswoman and longtime political party operative who in a previous campaign divorced former President Alvaro Colom to try to get around a rule barring presidential relatives from seeking the office.

An opinion poll released Wednesday gave the advantage to Morales with 67 percent voter preference, compared with 32 percent for Torres. The survey published by the newspaper Prensa Libre was conducted Oct. 9-14 by ProDatos O and had a margin of error of three percentage points.

If that trend bears out, it would be a continuation of the citizens' revolt that made Morales the surprise top vote-getter in the election's Sept. 6 opening round, when Guatemalans punished establishment favorite Manuel Baldizon, the 2011 runner-up who campaigned on the slogan, "It's his turn."

The protests began in April after a multimillion-dollar 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 and Torres have jockeyed to position themselves as the anti-corruption candidate.

Both promise to keep Attorney General Thelma Aldana, a key figure in the investigation, and the U.N. commission in place. Morales vows to strengthen controls and transparency, while Torres would ask the U.N. body for help conducting a government-wide audit.

"From the get-go we must combat corruption at its core," Torres told The Associated Press, offering the "testimony of a life's work."

"You can't talk about transparency if you're not transparent," she said.

Morales said in a debate this 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," he said.

But many are skeptical that either candidate will truly 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. And the worst part is neither one has said who will be in their Cabinet."

With Baldizon out of the race, the country has broken a cycle of four straight elections in which the previous runner-up won.

While the protests focused on corruption, for many they also came to encompass broader demands for profound change in a country with chronic issues of poverty and inequality.

Guatemala also struggles with gangs that buy influence in government and dominate many aspects of society and it has one of the world's highest homicide rates.

Observers note that the country's institutions remain dominated by the same political parties and many of the lawmakers elected in September are products of the system that the protests sought to upend.

The new legislators have "the same tricks" as always, said Eduardo Stein, a former vice president and political analyst.

He said the next president will have to deal not only with a short-fused populace but also an underfinanced state due to poor budget management. Nonetheless, he sees a moment of historic potential for reform.

"We are facing an extraordinary and unique opportunity to take great steps in the quality of our society," Stein said.

Renzo Rosal, another analyst, was more pessimistic, saying the candidates' proposals are merely cosmetic.

"What they have done here is build up a retaining wall for the (people's) demands," Rosal said. "The arrival of a new government is the perfect disguise to make us believe that ... will be different, but they won't."