September 7, 2015 / 12:25 AM / 2 years ago

Scandal-hit Guatemala's presidential race heads for run-off

A man gets his finger inked after casting his vote at a polling station during general elections in Guatemala City, September 6, 2015.Jorge Dan Lopez

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala was bound for a presidential election run-off after the three leading candidates split Sunday´s vote, prolonging political uncertainty just days after a graft scandal toppled the president.

Otto Perez resigned as president on Thursday and spent election day in jail while a judge considered charging him over a customs corruption racket, plunging the poor Central American country into its worst political crisis in two decades.

Comic actor Jimmy Morales dominated Sunday's election race, buoyed by voters' anger over corruption. He had 24.43 percent support with returns in from 94.9 percent of polling stations, although he fell far short of the 50 percent needed for an outright victory.

Manuel Baldizon, a conservative businessman who had until recently been favored to win, trailed with 19.41 percent and was in a fight with Sandra Torres, a former first lady with 19.09 percent support, for a place in the October 25 run-off.

Morales, a 46-year-old centrist, had a surge late in the campaign, helped in part with a slogan "not corrupt, not a thief" that resonated with voters.

"My program in a nutshell: complete openness," Morales said as results showed him ahead of his opponents on Sunday. "The people will be our partner in government."

"The media can be present in all negotiations, in all contract signings, in all purchases so it is clear who is responsible when things go wrong," he added, saying he would propose a popular vote on whether to form a constitutional assembly alongside the country´s discredited Congress if he wins the run-off vote.

While Morales has not laid out a clear political agenda, he has vowed to fight poverty by improving education and decentralizing the budget and government powers. His plan includes giving out smartphones to Guatemala´s children.

Baldizon is a congressman for the center-right opposition Renewed Democratic Liberty Party (Lider) and has promised to combat tax evasion, promote government austerity, modernize the state and curb corruption.

But graft allegations hurt his campaign when his vice presidential running mate, Edgar Barquin, a former central bank chief, was accused of criminal association and influence trafficking by a powerful United Nations-backed anti-graft commission. Barquin has not been charged.

Leftist candidate Sandra Torres, the ex-wife of former President Alvaro Colom, has vowed to fight poverty by increasing social spending by 0.5 percent of gross domestic product.

Mario Garcia, the candidate from Perez's right-wing Patriot's Party, lagged way behind with around 4.5 percent support.

Perez, a retired general who came to power in 2012 promising to be tough on crime, was set to leave office in January. Following his resignation, Congress transferred power to his vice president, Alejandro Maldonado.

Guatemala is Central America's largest economy but Maldonado's successor will be tasked with tackling a poverty rate that remains stubbornly high despite nearly uninterrupted economic growth since the end of a 1960-96 civil war.

Additional reporting by Sofia Menchu and Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Simon Gardner and Kieran Murray

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