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Guatemalan Presidential Election Pits Former First Lady Against TV Comedian


There's a presidential contest coming up. It pits a left-leaning former first lady against a conservative guy who's big on TV. The vote is Sunday, and it's in Guatemala. Most polls favor the comedy actor-turned politician, as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Comedian Jimmy Morales likes to portray drunk spies and gangsters.


KAHN: But a movie where he plays a bumbling peasant who stumbles into the presidential race is his most prescient these days.


JIMMY MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Sporting a bushy mustache and goofy grin, Morales turns to the camera and pleads, "if you don't want to be governed by the bad guys, then back the good ones." In real life, that script is working well for Morales and inspired his campaign slogan, I'm not corrupt nor a thief.

That simple phrase resonates with Guatemalans who recently took to the streets by the tens of thousands to oust the president and vice president. Both are accused of pocketing millions of dollars in a customs bribery scam and sit in jail awaiting trial. But while Morales is scoring points in the polls for being an outsider, his competitor, Senator Torres, a former first lady, hopes his political inexperience will be his downfall.


SANDRA TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: In a recently televised debate, Torres says, "we will be able to produce results from day one in office. One cannot just improvise the presidency." She also notes that while Morales touts himself as a newcomer, his political party includes former military officers, a liability in a country where a long civil war claimed more than 200,000 lives.

Despite being down in the polls, Torres has her supporters. Most are the rural poor who benefited from social aid programs she ran as first lady. However, embezzlement accusations against several close relatives hurt her. But the two candidates, both from traditional political parties, are not exciting Guatemala's newly emboldened electorate, says 23-year-old university student Andres Quezada. Still, he's optimistic.

ANDRES QUEZADA: We are at least dreaming with real convictions and generating hope.

KAHN: Quezada is one of the new activists who took to social media to organize the recent anticorruption marches. He says Sunday's election may be uninspiring, but the protests some dub the Guatemalan spring left a lasting impression on his generation. A lot of the new hope stems from the fact that an international panel with U.N. backing has been investigating corruption in Guatemala. Their work led to the arrest of high-ranking officials, including the former president. Ivan Velasquez of Colombia heads the panel.

IVAN VELASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "This is just the beginning of changes coming to Guatemala," says Velasquez. He says "despite the arrests, institutions are still weak, and corruption is still prevalent, but the citizenry is fighting back." Fifty-four-year-old voter Leonel Perez agrees. He says while neither candidate excites him, he'll still vote.

LEONEL PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Because whoever wins this Sunday, they know all eyes are watching them." He says "Guatemala's next president won't be able to steal from us so easily again." Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Guatemala City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on

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