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Guatemalans go to polls Sunday, with only vague impressions of candidates

Guatemalans go to polls Sunday, with only vague impressions of candidates
A woman leaves the market in Guatemala City with a bundle of bamboo canes. The country will hold a presidential election Sunday. (Luis Soto / Associated Press)

Guatemalans will go to the polls Sunday to decide between a comedian or a former first lady as their next leader, but most have little idea of what either candidate would bring to the presidency.

A recent report by the group Mirador Electoral said neither Jimmy Morales, a former TV clown who has a huge lead in the polls, nor Sandra Torres, who was married to former President Alvaro Colom, has presented voters with a clear plan of what their four-year tenures might hold.

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"Public debate, commercials and even interviews with journalists is not the point in which candidates seriously present their proposals of government," said Central American scholar Mike Allison at the University of Scranton.

After months of anti-corruption protests that helped unseat former President Otto Perez Molina in a customs kickback scandal this year, Guatemalans will continue to confront uncertainty over the country's political future when they head to the polls this weekend.

"It's hard to know what someone will do in their moment" as president, said Morales supporter Amarilis Pineda, 45.

Guatemala's political climate has shifted drastically in the last six months. In June, 12.9% of voters supported Morales, but by September he garnered 24% of the votes to secure the first spot in Sunday's runoff. A recent poll shows Morales with a huge lead over Torres, with nearly 68% of support.

"It's a rejection of all those who represent the old political order or even the relatively new political order," Allison said of Morales' swift rise to front-runner status.

Starting in April, thousands took to the streets condemning public officials involved in a customs fraud scandal called La Linea. With the slogan Renuncia Ya (Resign Already), the fed-up citizens demanded the resignation of Vice President Roxana Baldetti and the entire Cabinet. Perez Molina resigned days before the first round of presidential elections. He now is in a military prison, awaiting trial.

"It's hard to think about how all that [change] took place under Perez Molina," Allison said of the protest movement, improvements to the justice system and the renewal of independent investigations. "If we've seen this progress in these pockets under Perez Molina for four years, I'm hopeful that more can be done over the next four years."

Morales has said his plans rest on three pillars of development: health, education and employment, all with an emphasis on zero tolerance for corruption. Torres' UNE (National Unity of Hope) focuses on business growth and job creation, among other social programs.

But neither provide many details about how they would organize, fund or implement their proposals.

"I haven't paid much attention to his plans," said Morales supporter Pineda. "I've heard about them, but not every detail that he has planned."

What Guatemalans really want is economic growth that would improve their daily lives, Allison said.

Architecture student Luis Pedro Bolaños, 18, prefers Torres for her political experience.

"It's too early to say she is corrupt before she has even become the president," Bolaños said. "She has a clearer plan."

Brigida is a special correspondent.

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