Within 48 hours of the decision of Guatemala’s Congress to lift president Otto Pérez Molina’s immunity form prosecution, the former army general met with charges of bribery and tax evasion and was warned not to leave the country. Early Thursday morning, he resigned the presidency — the first time that judicial pressure against corruption has forced out a Guatemalan president.
It’s the second time that a judicial process has attempted to hold a top official accountable in recent years. In 2013, a tribunal convicted Efraín Ríos Montt, the country’s military leader from 1982 to 1983, of genocide and crimes of humanity for his role in the massacre of at least 10,000 Ixil Mayans. Though Guatemala’s constitutional court eventually overturned the conviction, the 89-year-old Ríos Montt will undergo a retrial, though his attorneys argue he is mentally unfit for any trial or sentence.
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The new acting president is Alejandro Maldonado, the 79-year-old who took over as vice president when Roxana Baldetti resigned (and she is now also facing trial for corruption charges). Maldonado is a former foreign minister, former ambassador to the United Nations and to Mexico, and he briefly served as the president of Guatemala’s constitutional court. It will be Maldonado who hands over power to the winner of Guatemala’s election this autumn.
Amid the high-stake drama, Guatemala’s presidential candidates are positioning for the general election set to take place this Sunday, September 6. After months of protests, Pérez Molina’s resignation seems most likely to benefit the independent candidacy of Jimmy Morales, a political neophyte and comedian who has run an anti-corruption campaign mixed with elements of social conservatism, populism and nationalism, though he has not been incredibly forthcoming about policy proposals. Some polls this week showed Morales overtaking frontrunner Manuel Baldizón. Like Pérez Molina, Baldizón is a longtime politician of the Guatemalan right, and Baldizón’s party, Libertad Democrática Renovada (LIDER, Renewed Democratic Liberty), is rumored to have financing ties to drug cartels and other corrupt elements within the country. Baldizón, the runner-up in the 2011 election, is running on the slogan, ‘Le toca,’ which translates to ‘His turn.’
Sandra Torres, the former first lady and Álvaro Colom’s ex-wife, is running as the candidate of the center-left Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE, National Unity of Hope). Zury Ríos, the daughter of the former military dictator, is running as the candidate of the right-wing Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG, Guatemalan Republican Front).
If, as expected, no candidate wins an outright majority, the top two candidate will compete in an October 25 runoff. Voters will also elect the 158 members of the Guatemalan Congress on Sunday, which could give LIDER a firm hold on the legislative branch — even if an anti-corruption wave pushes Baldizón into second or third place on the presidential ballot.