MEXICO CITY — As a TV comedian, Jimmy Morales has played bumbling drunks, spies, gangsters, a toga-wearing Socrates, even a blackface character with an Afro wig and a painted white mouth. Among the plots of his Guatemalan comedy bits was a cowboy who accidentally became president.
Morales is poised to ride this unlikely background all the way to the real presidential palace. After President Otto Pérez Molina and his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, were both thrown in jail for alleged corruption, Guatemalans became so disillusioned with their politicians that Morales and his outsider candidacy surged in the polls. During the first round of the presidential elections this month, Morales came in first, edging out former first lady Sandra Torres. His campaign slogan was plain and simple: "Not corrupt, not a thief."
But with no political experience, many have begun to wonder what he might do if elected in next month's runoff vote. As a television host told him over the summer: "We want to know the surprise candidate."
"Are you left? Are you right? What are you?"
Morales has styled himself as a centrist and has run on being transparent, an outsider to a rigged game. He says his priorities are fighting corruption and dealing with chronic malnutrition, low education levels and insecurity in the country. The U.N. corruption-investigating organization CICIG, which helped take down several members of Pérez Molina's government, would be welcome throughout his term if he were president, Morales said in an interview. "It's the entity that has the most credibility in Guatemala," he said.
Some human rights advocates worry that his party, the National Convergence Front, is made up of right-wing former military officers, including those in power during the country's brutal three-decade civil war that killed some 200,000 people, most at the hands of the military.
"When you grow up over 30 years of that level of violence and terror, when some of those actors reemerge, it's a pretty frightening thing," said Eric Olson, associate director of the Latin America program at the Wilson Center in Washington. "There's a lot of concern about that."
Helen Mack, a longtime human rights activist in Guatemala, said that these networks of former military officers have been accused of corruption themselves but that their activities are more hidden than the public scandals of Pérez Molina's administration. For now, Morales has "benefited from the surge of people rejecting the corrupt political class."
"He's like the Donald Trump of Guatemala," Mack said.
Morales denied that his party was guided by military interests and said that Torres's party has more soldiers and guerrillas from the civil war era.
"The UNE [National Unity of Hope] party has more ex-soldiers than we have, by a lot," he said. "We have three. They have more than 50 or 60."
Morales is well-known in Guatemala, but not for his politics. He grew up poor, reportedly selling bananas and used clothes on the streets as a child. Along with his brother, Sammy, he starred in a popular sketch comedy show called "Moralejas," or "Morals," which Morales calls a "program of good humor for the whole family." His comedy career spanned 16 years, he said, and included several films.
Morales acknowledged that some of his material, such as a blackface character called Black Pitaya, has drawn criticism. But he said that he was not intending to be offensive. Morales has also tried to put those characters behind him. One campaign ad has him pulling off a fake mustache and facing his dressing room mirror with an earnest look.
"In Guatemala, [blackface] hasn't been prohibited in any moment," he said. "I think we have given a representation of a Guatemalan comedy that's within the law. And we've never tried to denigrate any ethnic group. On the contrary, all the people from different populations love us a lot."
Analysts predict that he would have to reach out to rival parties if elected. Morales's party holds relatively few seats in the Guatemalan congress, so analysts expect that he would have to form new coalitions if he wants to push through legislation.
His main challenger, after pre-election favorite Manuel Baldizón dropped out, is Torres, the former first lady during the presidency of Alvaro Colom. She divorced her husband in 2011 with the intention of skirting campaign rules blocking relatives of the president from running for office. She's a businesswoman who focused on social programs while first lady. But her reputation has also been tarnished by relatives accused of embezzlement.
The election is scheduled for Oct. 25.