GUATEMALA CITY: Guatemalans voted in general elections Sunday amid widespread disgust with politics, just days after the country’s president resigned and was jailed to face prosecution on corruption charges.
The race was rocked by the scandal that felled president Otto Perez, which sparked protests on a scale never before seen in the impoverished Central American nation.
Polls closed at 6:00 pm (midnight GMT), with the first results expected three hours later.
Some protesters had called for the vote to be postponed until anti-corruption reforms could be implemented, but the national electoral tribunal rejected all petitions for a delay — triggering concern that many of the country’s 7.5 million voters would opt to stay home.
Turnout stood at 51.8 percent about two hours from the close of polls, the electoral tribunal said. The figure was nearly 70 percent at the last general elections in 2011.
Caretaker President Alejandro Maldonado, who was sworn in Thursday, called on Guatemalans to “never forget what the people are capable of,” after casting his ballot at a school in Guatemala City.
“People must use their votes to punish candidates who deceive them,” said the former Constitutional Court judge, who will serve until an elected successor is inaugurated on January 14.
The vote was largely peaceful, dispelling fears of violence after clashes on Friday night between supporters of rival parties left one person dead in the southern town of Santa Barbara.
There were no reports of serious incidents Sunday, though officials said that in several communities protesters put up road blocks to stop local candidates from busing in outsiders, in a country where vote-buying is widespread.
Authorities deployed 35,000 police to provide security.
Perez submitted his resignation just before midnight Wednesday, after Congress stripped him of his immunity and a judge issued a warrant for his arrest.
By Thursday evening, the conservative leader was in jail. A judge will decide Tuesday whether to indict him.
Prosecutors and investigators from a UN commission tasked with fighting high-level graft in Guatemala accuse Perez of orchestrating a scheme that allowed importers to pay bribes to get illegal discounts on their customs duty.
The scheme — dubbed “La Linea” (the line), for a hotline businesses allegedly called to access a network of corrupt officials — collected $3.8 million in bribes between May 2014 and April 2015, including $800,000 to Perez, prosecutors allege.
The former president denies involvement.
Perez, a retired general who had been in power since 2012, was constitutionally ineligible to stand for reelection. He spent election day in jail, barred from voting as a criminal suspect.
The scandal, which erupted in April, upended the campaign.
The final opinion poll, released Thursday, gave the lead to comedian and actor Jimmy Morales, a political novice who rose to fame playing a simpleton who accidentally ends up becoming president.
The poll gave the conservative candidate 25 percent of the vote, against 22.9 percent for right-wing lawyer Manuel Baldizon — the long-time frontrunner — and 18.4 percent for former first lady Sandra Torres, a social democrat.
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent, the top two will face off in a runoff on October 25.
‘Voting in mourning’
The protest movement was split over whether to take part in the polls.
An anti-election protest in the capital drew just a few dozen people — though several hundred demonstrated Saturday, some dressed in black and carrying cardboard coffins for a “stillborn” vote.
On Twitter, the hashtag “voting in mourning” was trending in Guatemala — a slogan of reluctant participation.
“It was difficult deciding to vote, but I hope the person I chose can improve the country,” said 22-year-old student Andrea Castillo at a polling station on Constitution Square, the epicenter of the protests.
In the western indigenous village of San Juan Sacatepequez, 32-year-old furniture maker Carlos Cuyuch said the scandals “encourage us even more to look for new leaders, to be able to demand better of them.”