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Who will face comedian in Guatemalan presidential runoff? It's too close to call

Who will face comedian in Guatemalan presidential runoff? It's too close to call
Presidential candidate Jimmy Morales doesn't know yet who he'll face in an October runoff.Sandra Torres was slightly ahead of Manuel Baldizon; the nation's electoral tribunal saida district-by-district vote count could delay results until Friday. (Luis Soto / Associated Press)

Guatemalans will have to wait to find out who will face TV comedian and political rookie Jimmy Morales in the next round of presidential elections. The nation's electoral authority declared Monday that it needed more time to determine who won second place in the initial round.

Sunday's vote came amid political turmoil. Last week, President Otto Perez Molina resigned and was jailed following allegations that he was involved in a customs corruption scandal that has shaken the Central American nation.

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With 97.7% of the ballots counted by Monday afternoon, former first lady Sandra Torres, a leftist, was ahead of center-right candidate Manuel Baldizon by only 980 votes. The count gave Torres 19.62% to Baldizon's 19.57%. Morales won just under 24%, giving him a safe lead on his nearest rivals.

Guatemala's Supreme Electoral Tribunal told a packed news conference in Guatemala City that it would do a district-by-district vote count before determining who would face Morales. Final results could be delayed until Friday, the tribunal said

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Just over a week ago, Baldizon, a member of the Renewed Democratic Liberty party better known by its acronym LIDER, leader in Spanish, was tipped as the most likely to be president by polls. But the downfall of his ally Perez Molina, who was not eligible to run for another term, clearly gave voters doubts and Morales an advantage as a political outsider.

The 46-year-old comedian with the conservative National Convergence Front party has no political experience. But he leaped over rivals in polls in the days approaching the elections, during which the political establishment was shaken by Perez Molina's resignation.

Morales said during voting Sunday that one of his major focuses would be to fight corruption, echoing the campaign slogan he ran on. "I might not be the most capable person, but what Guatemala needs today is to get back to believing in itself," he said.

The second round of voting is scheduled for Oct. 25.

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Torres, 59, is a controversial figure. A leaked cable from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala published by WikiLeaks described her as one of the "smartest" but "most abrasive" government figures in Guatemala.

The ex-wife of former President Alvaro Colom  is a member of the National Unity of Hope party and had been running third in the polls until Perez Molina resigned.

The challenge for Morales, a father of four, will be to prove that he is as different from other politicians as he claimed in his campaign, running on a slogan that he was "not a thief, not corrupt." He must design a realistic strategy behind his anti-corruption stance and demonstrate that he will be able to govern despite a lack of political experience.

He must also dispel concerns around his National Convergence Front, which was founded by retired military generals in 2008 -- harking back to Guatemala's long civil war, which ended in 1996. In an interview with Guatemala newspaper Prensa Libre published Friday, he said that he had purged the party of its military connections and that it had no "dark sources" of funding.

"I've replaced 99% of people in charge of the party with people I trust, who don't have political experience but have the desire to construct a happy, long-living Guatemala," he said to the newspaper.

The events of recent months may give Morales an edge over both Baldizon and Torres, who many voters may see as part of Guatemala's old guard.

"I'm happy that Baldizon didn't come in first place even though I don't have much confidence in Morales," Salvador Rojas, a 19-year-old student, said Sunday evening when it was clear that the comedian had the lead.

David Jerez, a 35-year-old unemployed man who had protested against Perez Molina's rule, said he didn't have any expectations that these elections would improve things.

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"Whoever wins is going to rob the country," he said.

The demonstrations that have rocked Guatemala since April were sparked by corruption allegations uncovered by a joint investigation by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala and the country's attorney general's office. The inquiry discovered and documented a fraud scheme in which officials allegedly received payoffs for cutting import taxes for companies.

Perez Molina, who during court hearings on Thursday and Friday protested his innocence and called himself an "honest man," is in a military jail awaiting a decision Tuesday on whether he will be tried. His former vice president, Roxana Baldetti, is already in jail facing charges for the same scandal.

Special correspondent Bonello reported from Mexico City and Brigida from Guatemala City.

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