Argentines vote for president, ending Kirchner dynasty

BUENOS AIRES (AFP): Argentines voted Sunday to elect their next president and set a new direction for the South American country after 12 years under power couple Nestor and Cristina Kirchner. Their heir apparent, Buenos Aires provincial Governor Daniel Scioli, is poised to win but may undo parts of their controversial legacy. The frontrunner has vowed to uphold the core elements of “kirchnerism,” a populist creed built around trade protectionism, social welfare and defense of the working classes. But the 58-year-old powerboating fanatic - who lost his right arm in a 1989 racing accident - has also vowed a change in style to attract more investment and increase productivity, and has assembled an economic team of free-marketeers. His top rival is Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, the candidate of Argentines fed up with what they see as the Kirchners’ heavy-handed economic policy and belligerent politics.

Macri, 56, rose to prominence as the boss of Argentina’s most popular football club, Boca Juniors, which won a string of titles under his reign.

There may also be a spoiler in the form of Sergio Massa, a former Kirchner ally who fell out with the president and launched a rival party, the Renewal Front, two years ago.

The frontrunners invoked sports analogies as they voted, with Scioli and Macri both aligning themselves with the country’s team in Sunday’s Rugby World Cup semi-final against Australia in Britain.

“They are what Argentina should be, with that grit, that pride, that strength to wear the Argentine jersey,” Scioli said amid a scrum of journalists.

Macri said he was going home after casting his ballot to watch the match, calling Los Pumas “an example of the Argentina we all want.”

Under Argentine electoral law, in order to win outright in the first round, a candidate must claim more than 45 percent of the vote, or at least 40 percent with a margin of 10 points over the runner-up.

Opinion polls have put Scioli at about 40 percent, with Macri at around 30 percent and Massa at around 20 percent - roughly the same scores seen in the August primary.

That means the country could be headed for its first-ever run-off election, on November 22.

“There’s no doubt about who will come in first and second. The real question is whether there will be a second round,” said pollster Ricardo Rouvier.

Nestor Kirchner came to office in 2003, in the aftermath of a devastating economic crisis that triggered what was then the largest sovereign debt default in history and sparked deadly riots in the streets.

He presided over a stunning turnaround underpinned by average economic growth of more than eight percent a year, fueled by high prices for Argentina’s agricultural exports.

He handed power to his wife in 2007. They were widely expected to continue their term-for-term tango, but Nestor died of a heart attack in 2010.

Cristina, a fiery former senator, defended his legacy all the more combatively and won re-election in 2011.

But the economic magic of the early Kirchner years has faded.

When Argentina’s next president takes office on December 10, he will inherit a country troubled by inflation, an overvalued currency and an economy facing what the International Monetary Fund predicts will be a 0.7 percent contraction next year.

Argentina, Latin America’s third-largest economy after Brazil and Mexico, is also still waging a messy legal battle against two American hedge funds that reject its plans to restructure the $100 billion in debt it defaulted on in 2001.

The firms, which Kirchner condemn as “vulture funds,” successfully sued for full payment in US federal court. Kirchner’s refusal to pay them pushed Argentina into a new default last year.

Her tenure has also been marked by acrimonious battles with big media, the courts and old Falklands War enemy Britain.

“The world is going to watch the new president’s first 24 hours very carefully. He’ll have to deliver a message to convince people that Argentina is a country where they can invest, with clear rules,” said political analyst Pablo Knopoff.

Argentina’s 32 million voters, who are required to cast ballots, are also electing their representatives in Congress and regional bloc Mercosur. Eleven of the country’s 23 provinces are also electing governors and other officials.

Polling stations will remain open until 6:00 pm (2100 GMT), and first results are expected around three hours later.

But pollsters have warned the numbers are so close that counting could stretch well into the night.

Tanzania votes in tight election race

DAR ES SALAAM (AFP): Tanzanians voted in presidential and general elections Sunday, in what is expected to be the tightest race in the history of east Africa’s most populous country. Long lines of voters began gathering hours before dawn in the main city Dar es Salaam, with centres there opening on time at 7:00 am (0400 GMT) and queues moving quickly. Analysts say the presidential race will pit John Magufuli of the long-ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), seen as the narrow favourite, against ex-prime minister Edward Lowassa, a CCM stalwart who recently defected to the opposition Chadema, heading a coalition of parties. Both have spent the past two months flying by helicopter across the huge country wooing voters, holding colourful rallies with thousands of flag-waving supporters. Analysts have warned that the unusually tight race could spark tensions, with the opposition providing the first credible challenge to the CCM since the introduction of multi-party democracy in 1995.“I want to lead the country to development and good welfare,” Magufuli said in one of his final campaign speeches.

“Everyone deserves a better life irrespective of his or her political inclination.”

Many believe 55-year old Magufuli - currently minister of works, for which he earned the nickname “The Bulldozer” - will face a tough challenge from Lowassa, 62.

Lowassa was prime minister from 2005 until his resignation in 2008 over corruption allegations that he denies and has spent years being one of the CCM’s strongest supporters, but on the campaign trail he has called for an end to the party’s rule.

“This regime has outlived its usefulness,” Lowassa said at his final rally late Saturday, repeating his calls to “kick CCM out of office, the regime that has failed the nation for all the 54 years it has been in office.”

Lowassa, who cast his vote in the remote centre at Ngarash, in the northern Arusha district, said he was “confident of winning.”

Outgoing President Jakaya Kikwete, who is not running having served his constitutional two-term limit, has ordered the police to boost security to ensure calm in the country of some 52 million people, with some 22 million registered to vote.

Police chief Ernest Mangu said there was “peace in every corner of the country” but called for calm warning “tension may rise up during counting and tallying of votes.”

Kikwete, at a final rally for the CCM, made a rare direct attack on Lowassa - a long-time former colleague - who he called “corrupt and greedy”, and accused of seizing land illegally while lands minister.

“We need change - after more than 54 years we don’t have anything,” said Cliff Mohamed, 33, after voting in Dar es Salaam.

Polls closed officially at 4:00 pm (1300 GMT), although centres were to stay open until all those in the queue at that time had voted.

Election officials say they expect the results of the presidential race within three days.

“If you lose, accept defeat,” former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, who heads a team of Commonwealth election observers, said ahead of the vote.

As well as a presidential race, voters will also be casting ballots in parliamentary and local polls on Sunday, including on the semi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar, just off mainland Tanzania, which will also hold its own presidential elections.

Both Magufuli and Lowassa have made repeated calls for the preservation of peace and national unity in speeches denouncing tribalism, religious violence and corruption.

On Zanzibar, campaigning has been largely peaceful, but residents have stockpiled food and water, fearful of possible unrest after the polls on islands famed for their pristine white sand beaches and UNESCO-listed architecture.

Leading candidates in the Zanzibar vote are incumbent president Ali Mohamed Shein of the ruling CCM, and current vice-president Seif Sharif Hamad from the opposition Civic United Front (CUF), who are currently sharing power in a unity government.

Haiti votes for new president amid security concerns

PORT-AU-PRINCE (AFP): Haitians began voting Sunday for a new president in a contest heaving with 54 candidates as fear of violence threatened to keep turnout low. The impoverished Caribbean nation, notorious for chronic political instability, is also holding second-round legislative elections and is voting for local officials. The polls are held in a climate of uncertainty, with many afraid of a repeat of the violence that plagued the first-round legislative elections in August when two people were killed. Despite Haiti’s propensity for election violence, - police will deploy 10,000 officers, backed by 5,000 from the UN peacekeeping force MINUSTAH - many people were in a buoyant mood in the run-up to the election. There was something of a carnival atmosphere in the days before the vote, with candidates embarking on colorful parades and processions in the capital Port-au-Prince and elsewhere in a last-gasp bid to grab a few more votes.

This first-round presidential vote is the only one of several recent elections in Haiti - the poorest country in the Americas - to take place on schedule.

It comes nearly five years after President Michel Martelly came to power at the helm of a country that has failed to find democratic stability since the end of the 30-year Duvalier dictatorship in 1986.

The pop singer and political novice assumed office in 2011, the year after a catastrophic earthquake killed more than 200,000 and left upwards of 1.5 million living on the streets.

The magnitude 7.0 quake flattened most buildings in the capital, including the presidential palace, and five years on more than 85,000 people still live in makeshift camps, according to Amnesty International.

One of the few candidates to emerge from the crowded presidential field is Jude Celestin, of the LAPEH party, who was eliminated from the second round in the controversial 2010 vote following a recount by the Organization of American States and is considered the frontrunner this time.

“This time they will not steal the election,” supporter Lucksenson Morel said at a noisy rally.

But there is also a groundswell of support in some areas for Maryse Narcisse, a physician and longtime activist of the Fanmi Lavalas party.

Narcisse has the powerful and very public backing of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide - and for some Haitians, that is enough. Aristide, a divisive figure who returned from exile in 2011, is revered among the many poor in the capital. But the abundance of presidential hopefuls is not a sign of democratic health, experts say.

A dozen or so of the candidates are former lawmakers or leaders of established political parties, but many others are unknowns to the average Haitian and the month of campaigning has been lackluster.

Only a handful of candidates have even released a platform outlining what they plan to do if elected.

The elections, which include everything from presidential to local races, have created something of a logistical headache for vote organizers. “The debates were shallow. The candidates only spoke in generalities. None of them showed that they are in a position to manage the situation well,” said Haitian economist Kesner Pharel.

Whoever takes over from Martelly on February 7 will face huge challenges and a humanitarian emergency. Six million of Haiti’s 10 million people live in extreme poverty, getting by on less than $2.50 a day. Polling stations close at 4:00 pm (2000 GMT).

Ivory Coast votes for new president in key stability test

ABIDJAN (AFP): Ivory Coast voted in a presidential election Sunday expected to return incumbent Alassane Ouattara to power amid hopes of cementing peace after years of violence and upheaval. More than six million people are eligible to cast ballots but concern is high that the violence sparked by the last election in 2010 will this time render a low voter turnout. “I want a lasting peace and work for my children,” said Bintou Coulibaly, a trader casting her ballot in a neighbourhood of the commercial capital, Abidjan. Voting was due to begin at 0700 GMT but was slow to get underway, with some polling booths still closed two hours later. In Abidjan, many were an hour behind schedule. Polling officially ends at 1700 GMT. The west African state, the world’s leading cocoa producer, needs a peaceful and credible election to draw a line under the deadly violence that marked Outtara’s victory five years ago. But opposition figures have cried foul, with three candidates having withdrawn from the race which now leaves Outtara vying against six others.

“We’ll be far, very far from the 80 percent participation at the election in 2010,” one observer warned.

Around 3,000 died in the violence following the 2010 elections which pitted Ouattara against former strongman leader Laurent Gbagbo.

The crisis was a bloody epilogue to a decade of upheaval, splitting west Africa’s economic powerhouse between a rebel-held north and a loyalist south.

A top economist, Ouattara, 73, is seeking a solid first-round win to dodge the threat of a run-off against one of the six other presidential contenders.

Some 34,000 soldiers are on duty to ensure voting passes off peacefully, and preliminary results are expected early in the week.

Ouattara has campaigned on turning around Ivory Coast’s economy and securing stability after years of turmoil.

“For the next five years, we will strengthen our institutions to consolidate peace,” said Ouattara, rounding off his campaign at a rally of thousands of supporters in Abidjan.

The former deputy head of the IMF was finally inaugurated president in 2011 after weeks of violence that followed then president Gbagbo’s refusal to concede defeat in the election.

Gbagbo was eventually ousted by French-backed pro-Ouattara forces and is now in a Dutch jail. He goes on trial next month for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Ouattara’s main challenger is former prime minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan, who is running on behalf of Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front.

Former prime minister Charles Konan Banny dropped out of the running on Friday - becoming the third candidate to do so - citing “grave irregularities” in the organisation of the vote.

Former foreign minister Amara Essy had also withdrawn, along with former national assembly president Mamadou Koulibaly, who condemned the vote as “rigged”.

The government shrugged off their boycott as a bid to duck out of a competition they were tipped to lose.

But Ouattara has come under criticism from Amnesty International for the detention of opponents ahead of the vote, and rights campaigners have said little justice has been meted out to members of his camp over the 2010-11 violence.

In Yopougon, the working class pro-Gbagbo district of Abidjan known for its buzzing nightlife, there was deep gloom on Saturday, with many residents still seeing Gbagbo as the rightful winner of the 2010 vote.

“For us, October 25 is a day of mourning in Yopougon,” said hairdresser Daniel as he sat outside his salon, adding that he would not be voting on Sunday. “Going to vote would be like violating the constitution myself,” he said.

“Tell me who to vote for while my parents are languishing in Ouattara’s prisons,” said a woman who gave her family name as Yaba, standing amongst steaming pots at her restaurant.

But in the staunchly pro-Ouattara neighbourhood of Adobo, the mood was upbeat amongst voters cheering on their champion, known as “Ado” after his initials. “Ado will build roads, he’s going to bring work for young people,” said 19-year-old Ousmane, who lost his mother in the violence sparked by the last election.

Poles poised to hand eurosceptic conservatives victory

WARSAW (AFP): Poles began voting Sunday in a general election expected to end eight years of centrist government, with surveys showing the eurosceptic conservatives firmly ahead after running a campaign of anti-refugee rhetoric and welfare promises. The opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party led by controversial ex-premier Jaroslaw Kaczynski commands an 8-to-12 point poll lead over the liberal, pro-European Civic Platform (PO) of Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz. Analysts say the PiS could even end up governing alone. “After eight years in opposition, Kaczynski is making a big comeback,” Warsaw-based political analyst Eryk Mistewicz told AFP of the undisputed right-wing leader, widely regarded as a political puppet-master. “Even if he doesn’t manage a majority (231 seats) he will sweep up MPs from smaller parties.” Despite a quarter-century of explosive growth and vastly-improved living standards since communism’s demise, bread-and-butter issues coupled with fears sparked by Europe’s migrant crisis have dominated campaigning in the regional heavyweight of 38m people.

Although the EU member’s economy is forecast to expand by 3.5 percent this year and next, and joblessness recently fell below 10 percent, many voters believe time and money have been wasted and are fed up.

“That the economy kept growing during the (2008-9) global crisis wasn’t thanks to the PO, but rather to the gigantic influx of EU funds and investment ahead of the Euro 2012 championships,” Agnieszka, 40, a senior manager at a Warsaw construction company, told AFP.

“The PO could have managed that money much better,” said Agnieszka, declining to reveal her full name. “Like most Poles, I think we need change, so I’m voting for PiS.”

The PO also never recovered from a 2014 eavesdropping scandal that discredited key high-profile government ministers, analysts say.

They also note that the departure last year of centrist leader Donald Tusk to the post of EU council president left his struggling Civic Platform in the lurch.

“I’m very disappointed with the PO - too many scandals, too few results, so I’m voting for a change, for PiS,” Warsaw mechanic Jacek Jaworski, 53, told AFP outside a polling station.

Kaczynski anointed Beata Szydlo the PiS’s candidate for prime minister after she ran a winning presidential campaign for political greenhorn Andrzej Duda, ousting PO ally Bronislaw Komorowski in May.

Szydlo, 52, has vowed to lower the pension age, introduce generous family benefits, impose taxes on banks and foreign-owned hypermarkets while cutting taxes for small and medium-sized businesses.

Her promises target core PiS electorates in the poorer, devoutly Catholic east known as “Polska B” and public sector workers.

Critics warn the moves could destabilise public finances, which are now in good shape. Some voters echo those concerns.

“I’m not a huge PO fan but I’m afraid of PiS’s spending promises - they could rack up a huge debt,” Ewa, 58, a Warsaw nurse who did not give her surname, told AFP before voting Sunday.

Kaczynski also scored political capital by playing up fears linked to Europe’s worst migrant crisis since World War II.

He claimed refugees were bringing “cholera to the Greek islands, dysentery to Vienna, various types of parasites” in comments that critics said recalled the Nazi era.

Warsaw should financially support EU efforts to tackle the crisis, but not take in refugees, he says. Surveys show nearly 60 percent of Poles share his views.

“I sympathise with innocent women, children - they’re fleeing a war. But I believe we should only help financially,” elegant pensioner Teresa, who declined to provide her surname, told AFP in Warsaw’s leafy Mokotow district.

“If richer European nations can’t cope with refugees, how will we manage?” she said, adding PiS got her vote.

The party last held power in 2005-7, when Kaczynski governed in tandem with his twin brother, the late president Lech Kaczynski. He died in a presidential jet crash in Smolensk, western Russia, in 2010.

The era of twin power was marked by internal political turmoil triggered by their combative style and international tensions brought on by their anti-German and anti-Russian views as well as a row with the European Union over Poland’s weighting in EU decision-making.

Analysts warn a Kaczynski comeback could relaunch a similar political dynamic, possibly tinged with authoritarian overtones.

“If PiS end up governing alone with an allied president, Poland will become another Hungary,” Polish Academy of Sciences Professor Radoslaw Markowski told AFP.

Other parties that could enter parliament include the United Left, the Nowoczesna (Modern) liberals, the libertarian Korwin group and leftist Razem (Together).

Polling stations are open from 7:00 am (0600 GMT) to 9:00 pm (2000 GMT) Sunday. Exit polls are expected immediately after voting ends.

Decisive Ukraine polls marred by cancelled vote in key port

KIEV (AFP): Western-backed Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s fragile ruling coalition faced a major survival test Sunday in local elections that were instantly marred as voting was cancelled in the strategic port of Mariupol. Polling stations opened across all Kiev-administered regions accept for Mariupol - a southeastern city of nearly 500,000 that provides a land bridge between pro-Moscow rebel regions and Ukraine’s Russian-annexed Crimea peninsula. A statement from Poroshenko’s Solidarity party said the polls “were aborted... due to the improper preparation of election ballots, the absence of control over their printing and number, and reliable storage.” Poroshenko’s party said it still hoped to conduct mayoral and regional council votes in the city in the coming weeks. But the locals were angry and blamed the pro-Western authorities in Kiev for the abrupt disruption.

“It seem that someone wants the city to remain rudderless and without proper authorities,” said 90-year-old Olena Kholodenko after being turned away at the polling station door.

The combative elections come during a lull in fighting and with worries growing that Ukraine is slipping off the global radar despite just turning into Europe’s second-poorest country and still standing as a bulwark against Russia’s feared expansion west.

But politicians in Ukraine were most concerned about what happens in Mariupol - a vital outlet for the east’s industrial output that had militias stationed on its northeastern outskirts throughout most of the war.

The devastated city came under a January 24 mortar and rocket attack monitors blamed on the insurgents that killed 31 civilians and wounded more than 100.

The collapse of Poroshenko’s bickering ruling alliance could have grave consequences that could not only result in the eventual dissolution of parliament but also derail Kiev’s plans of applying for EU membership by 2020.

Twenty months have passed since the ex-Soviet nation sparked the world’s imagination through unceasing protests that ultimately toppled a despised Kremlin-backed leader and appeared to anchor Ukraine’s future with the West.

But Russia’s subsequent seizure of Crimea and the pro-Moscow eastern revolt that followed in which more than 8,000 died have seen the nation of 40 million stripped of its most strategic naval bases and industrial heartland.

The popularity of Poroshenko’s government has plunged because of this year’s drastic utility bill hikes and other belt-tightening measures prescribed by world lenders under their $40 billion (36 billion euro) economic rescue loan.

And Poroshenko’s seeming inability to sideline a handful of influential tycoons has seen his own ratings slip to less than half of what they were when he became president in May 2014.

The party of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk - a top Poroshenko partner who won October’s parliamentary vote - has seen his its approval languishing hover near zero and is fielding no candidates.

Frustration at the West’s refusal to arm Ukrainian forces and only provide tightly-regulated financial help has further bolstered the election odds of the marginalised but militant far right.

Polls show that pro-Russian groups - active in Mariupol - are also gaining momentum because of Kiev’s effective economic blockade of rebel-run regions in which an estimated 3.5 million people still live.

“We need a domestic coalition that will ruin Putin’s ambition of blowing our country apart from the inside,” Poroshenko said on one recent campaign stump.

Poroshenko’s confident promise the day after his presidential triumph to stamp out the insurgency within a matter of days has also done little to help his cause.

The separatist parts of the Russian-speaking Lugansk and Donetsk regions are not only boycotting the polls but also planning their own for early next year.

The insurgents intend to bar pro-Kiev candidates from their elections and accuse Poroshenko of “genocide”.

The demoralised mood of voters has been picked up by an astounding 132 parties - many of them using boastful slogans and colourful characters to draw in the media and prompt endless TV debates.

The Opposition Party - built from the ashes of the toppled Moscow-backed leadership - has peppered the streets with posters promising “Prosperity and Peace”.

Former 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution leader and ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko is demanding a “professional army and fair tariffs”.

The fiery and divisive political survivor is expected to do better than her Fatherland party’s disappointing sixth place showing in last year’s parliamentary vote.

“I think that if Fatherland’s results are good, Tymoshenko could join the real opposition and pull out of the coalition government,” Anatoliy Oktysyuk of Kiev’s International Centre for Policy Studies told AFP.

“These elections are brutal and dirty. And they may not live up to our Western partners’ hopes.”

Congolese begin voting on longtime leader’s bid to extend rule

BRAZZAVILLE (AFP): People in the Republic of Congo began voting in a referendum Sunday on whether longtime President Denis Sassou Nguesso can seek a third term in office that has sparked clashes in the oil-producing country. Polling booths were due to open at 7:00 am (0600 GMT) for the ballot on whether to amend the constitution to allow Sassou Nguesso, 71, to extend his grip on power that began more than three decades ago. The small central African country has been rocked by deadly protests in the run-up to the referendum. On Tuesday, authorities said four people were killed in clashes between opposition demonstrators and security forces in Brazzaville and the economic capital Pointe-Noire. But opposition leader Paul-Marie Mpouele claimed Friday that at least 20 people had died in the unrest and asked opposition supporters “to reject the referendum” but also to “avoid all violent acts”.

Archbishop of Brazzaville Anatole Nilandou has appealed to the various political parties to hold talks on the crisis sparked by Sassou Nguesso’s bid to run for another term in 2016.

All traffic except for security forces and those with a special police permit was banned from the roads in Brazzaville Sunday and the capital was quiet at the start of voting.

Voter Brice Mbemba, without revealing whether he had voted “yes” or “no” on amending the constitution, said he had come to “vote for peace in my country”.

“We want peace, nothing but peace because we have suffered too much,” he said.

One of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, Sassou Nguesso, who began his career in the military, took power in 1979 and has been in office ever since, except for a five-year period.

He wants to amend the constitution to change two provisions that disqualify him for running for reelection in 2016.

Under the current charter, the maximum age of presidential candidates is 70 and the maximum number of mandates a person can serve is two.

Sassou Nguesso has already served two consecutive seven-year terms.

The former Marxist soldier was president from 1979 to 1992, when Congo was a one-party state.

He went into opposition in 1992 after losing multi-party elections but returned to power at the end of a brief but bloody civil war in 1997 in which his rebel forces ousted president Pascal Lissouba.

He was elected president in 2002, then again in 2009, when he won nearly 79 percent of the votes. Half of his 12 rivals boycotted the most recent election.

The European Union stressed Thursday that “freedom of expression and association should be preserved” and that “an inclusive dialogue was the only way to restore a broad consensus” in the country.

The president of former colonial power France, Francois Hollande, Wednesday urged Sassou Nguesso to “calm tensions” while emphasising his right to “consult his people”.

Tens of thousands of the president’s supporters rallied in Brazzaville on October 10 in favour of the constitutional changes.

The turnout dwarfed an anti-government demonstration late last month, when several thousand people poured onto the capital’s streets to protest against the president’s plan to cling to power.

They rallied under the cry “Sassoufit”, a pun on the French expression “ca suffit”, or “that’s enough”.

Comedian favored to win Guatemalan presidency

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters): A former TV comedian with no experience in government is poised to win Guatemala’s presidential election on Sunday after a corruption scandal toppled the country’s last leader and fueled voter outrage with the political establishment. Playing up his outsider status and promising clean government, 46-year-old Jimmy Morales has surged in opinion polls since a probe into a multi-million dollar customs racket led to the resignation and arrest of President Otto Perez. Voter surveys show Morales is set to easily win Sunday’s run-off vote against former first lady Sandra Torres, who also vows to tackle corruption but is seen by many voters as part of the old political order. As polling stations opened, many voters said they saw in the comedian an opportunity for a fresh start, and an end to the tainted political dealings that sparked nationwide protests and the eventual ouster of Perez last month.

“We’re tired of Guatemala’s old-style politics ... the wholesale robbery of Guatemala,” said 47-year-old small business owner Alejandro Cruz, after casting his vote in Guatemala City. “I voted for Jimmy Morales. I do think he will be victorious, and that today will be a historic day.”

Connecting with voters with tales of his humble origins and jokes from a 14-year stint on a sketch comedy show, Morales has faced criticism over fanciful policy ideas, like tagging teachers with a GPS device to make sure they show up in class.

His manifesto runs to just six pages, giving few clues as to how he might govern, and his National Convergence Front (FCN) will have just 11 out of 158 seats in the next Congress.

“He has no program and no team,” said Hugo Novales, a political analyst at Guatemalan think tank ASIES. “But discontent is so high that those issues aren’t a priority for your average voter.”

Just a few months ago, Morales was a rank outsider, but as probes by a UN-backed body targeting public sector corruption engulfed the government and the campaign of the election front-runner, the clean-cut comic surged into contention.

One investigation found that Perez and his vice president were at the heart of the customs scam known as La Linea. After being impeached, stripped of his presidential immunity and arrested last month, Perez is now behind bars awaiting trial.

Perez denies the allegations against him, but the scandal has sorely tested already shaky public trust in politicians.

Morales, voters hope, will offer a complete break from this.

“We’ve got to give him an opportunity,” said carpenter Gilberto Maldonado, 40. “Many say the gentleman is inexperienced, but let him show them the experience he has.”

His center-left opponent Torres, 60, has vowed to extend welfare programs that were once a hallmark of the presidency of Alvaro Colom, when she was first lady.

Critics say Torres, whose National Unity of Hope (UNE) party has traditionally fared well in poor rural areas, used her role as the head of a powerful welfare committee under Colom to make state handouts dependent on political loyalty.

Morales also has his detractors.

The former funny man has had to reassure voters his party is not too close to the military, which played an often brutal role in Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war.

Some founders of his FCN, were, like Perez, members of the army, though Morales says the party’s core is now civilian.

Others worry about the policy agenda of the onetime theology student, who has promised to hand out smartphones to kids and revive a territorial dispute with neighboring Belize.

The comedian beat Torres in a first round of voting on Sept. 6 in a field of 14 candidates, but fell short of the 50 percent of votes needed to avoid a run-off.

12 injured in scuffle at Turkish vote in Tokyo embassy

TOKYO (AFP): At least 12 people were injured in a scuffle between Turks and ethnic Kurds as hundreds of Turkish citizens gathered Sunday at their embassy in Tokyo to vote in a general election, reports said. TV footage showed police breaking up the fight outside the mission as voting for the November 1 election began early in the Japanese capital. The injured included two police officers, Tokyo Broadcasting System said, adding that the cause of the fight was not immediately clear. But Jiji Press, quoting a Turkish voter, said the clash began after Kurds tried to disply the flag of a pro-Kurdish party. “I was attacked by Turks all of a sudden while I was in a car with my friends,” a Kurdish man whose shirt had been torn off told the broadcaster in front of the embassy, which was heavily guarded by police. Some 3,600 Turkish nationals are resident in Japan, according to the country’s foreign ministry.

The election comes at a time of escalating violence in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, despite a 2013 ceasefire in a three-decade insurgency that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the poll after his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its governing majority for the first time in June 7 elections, forcing it into coalition talks that ended in failure.

The AKP won three decisive general election victories in 2002, 2007 and 2011 but was stripped of its overall majority in June after losing support to a pro-Kurdish party.

The result damaged Erdogan’s hopes of creating a powerful US-style presidency with full executive powers.