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Ballots Tallied After Guatemalans Vote For Next President

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Protesters in Guatemala have just toppled one president widely believed to be corrupt. And with yesterday's presidential election, the country is headed for change. What is not clear is whether that will be a change for the better. The top candidates include a political boss from the old guard and a comedian, who was part of the protest. Votes are still being counted this morning and a runoff is all but certain. For more, we're joined in our studio by Eric Olson of the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

Good morning.

ERIC OLSON: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Give us a little history here, if you would. Tell us about the scandal that drove out, ultimately, President Otto Perez Molina.

OLSON: Well, about four months ago, the attorney general of Guatemala announced that she had been carrying out extensive investigation into fraud in the tax collection office. Initially, she didn't have information that linked the president to it. But about two weeks ago, she announced that indeed she did have specific information that the president was involved in probably leading a criminal network of receiving bribes in exchange for paying export duties. And so that became the basis of this latest movement to push him out of office, and he's now in jail.

MONTAGNE: Which I would think would be a big deal in Guatemala.

OLSON: Well, there have been many corruption scandals in the past and former presidents have served time in jail, no doubt, but this is the first time that a sitting president has been accused of corruption and forced out of office and into jail. Yes, it's a big deal.

MONTAGNE: This was a big deal then for protesters who managed to oust basically - although he resigned - the president. They have been in protest mode. Now the country is in election mode. And what are they looking at in terms of possible future leaders?

OLSON: Well, this is the big challenge because the top contenders are really questionable from the perspective of many people. One of those top candidates is an old-style political boss who runs a political machine based in the rural sectors of Guatemala. His name is Manuel Baldizon. He's a very wealthy businessman, but there's always been questions about the sources of his income and his connections to other criminal networks in the country. They're involved in contraband, and some people believe that they were involved in drug trafficking.

The other top candidate who is likely to go onto the second round is a man named Jimmy Morales. Jimmy Morales is a clown - literally a clown - a comedian who does stand-up comedy and other skits. He has zero political experience, and so people are voting for him more as a protest, more looking for a non-politician. But there are some real serious questions about his capacity to run the country as well. So we don't know who the top two candidates are going to be yet, but there's a lot of ambivalence about the options before the people of Guatemala.

MONTAGNE: Well, then, in short, Guatemala is facing a real question mark about whether that country will see an end to corruption and bad leadership.

OLSON: That's true. I think there's a lot of questions about that. And that's why there's a whole movement afoot to push for deep reforms - deep reforms in the electoral process, deep reforms in how Congress is named and organized and deep reforms into campaign finance because there's been enormous amount of corruption and dirty money getting into the system in that way.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

OLSON: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Eric Olson is associate director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.