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Voters in Guatemala went to the polls on Sunday 6 September 2015 to elect a new president, vice-president, Congress and local mayors.
They did so as the president elected four years ago, Otto Pérez Molina, was being held in military detention after resigning to avoid facing impeachment charges. These were based on accusations of personal involvement in a multi-million dollar kickback operation in Guatemala’s customs system.
Pérez Molina’s resignation came a day after the Guatemalan Congress voted unanimously to remove his immunity to prosecution, paving the way for his impeachment and trial on criminal charges. In his first court appearance on Friday 4 September, the former president denied all the accusations made against him. “I would never exchange my dignity for any quantity of money,” he told the court.
The trial hearings are due to resume on 11 September.
The vice-president’s helicopter
It was in May 2015 that Pérez Molina’s vice-president, Roxana Baldetti, was forced to resign over a scandal known as La Linea (so called because of the special telephone line that Guatemalan importers used to arrange their deals with officials).
The fraud involved cutting customs duties for importers in return for huge kickbacks — which were paid not only to customs officials but high-ranking members of the government, including Baldetti.
The vice-president became a target of suspicion following her sudden acquisition of expensive properties and a private helicopter said to be worth some US$13 million. She was jailed on 21 August 2015.
In that same week, charges of corruption were also brought against President Pérez Molina for the same affair.
Pérez Molina, who served under dictator Efrain Rios Montt in the 1980s and was accused of participating in atrocities that led to the death of more than 200,000 Guatemalans, won the 2011 elections on promises of a security crackdown and honest government.
Internationally, he became known as one of the leading voices calling for a review of the criminalization and militarization of the so-called “war on drugs”, led by Washington.
At home, however, it was soon obvious that his administration was no more honest than previous ones, with little attempt being made to reform the judiciary, police or other state institutions.
The ‘Guatemalan Spring’
The ouster of President Pérez Molina is a triumph for the popular movements that have been demonstrating throughout Guatemala since April, calling for his impeachment.
The demonstrations brought together students, indigenous and peasant organizations, but also many middle-class city dwellers, tired of the lack of transparency and obvious corruption at all levels of the state.
By the end of August, schools, universities and many businesses had closed down. On 27 August, more than 100,000 people demonstrated against corruption in Guatemala City’s main square and in many other cities and towns. It is also further vindication for the CICIG (the Spanish acronym for the International Commission Against Impunity), a UN-sponsored body set up in 2007 to help reform the Guatemalan judiciary and put an end to impunity in the country.
It was with the help of the CICIG that the Guatemalan Attorney-General’s office was able to put together a convincing case against, first of all, vice-president Baldetti, then at least 20 other high-ranking officials, and finally the president himself.
From protest to real change
As with many other protest movements throughout the world, the Guatemalan ‘Spring’ has been noteworthy because it has rejected all attempts at being co-opted by the traditional political forces.
Their efforts met with success in the first week of September 2105, as the president finally announced his resignation, four months before the scheduled end of his term in office.
When President Pérez Molina announced that he was stepping down in the early hours of Thursday 4 September, there were huge celebrations throughout Guatemala.
The problem now is that the elections have been held before the protest groups can come together as a coherent political movement.
Instead, the seven million voters in Guatemala have been faced with the choice of electing the least distasteful of the candidates on offer.
Unlike in El Salvador, which also suffered many years of civil conflict, in Guatemala no solid political parties have emerged. Elections have been won by individuals gathering support as figureheads of loose alliances often more closely associated with criminal organizations than as representatives of genuinely popular political forces.
Since the return to civilian rule in 1996, no political party has managed to win a second term in office, and many of them have subsequently disappeared.
Who will have the last laugh?
As a sign of their rejection of this system, it was Jimmy Morales, a TV comedian with no political experience, who appeared to have emerged as the first round winner, garnering some 24% of the vote.
Morales is at the head of the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (National convergence Front) party. Thie FCN has been seen as the creation of former military personnel in the
Guatemalan Military Veterans Association (Asociacion de Veteranos Militares de Guatemala.
A week after the elections, it was still unclear whom Morales would face in the runoff election at the end of October 2015.
There was a difference of only some 5,000 votes between Sandra Torres, the ex-wife of former president Alvaro Colom, and head of the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (National Unity for Hope) and the businessman Manuel Baldizon, who at one point had been seen as the presidential forntrunner, but whose candidacy suffered from his identification with the old style of politics.
As none these candidates won the 50% of the vote needed to secure election in the first round, a second poll is due to be held on Sunday 25 October.
Some of the leaders of the popular protests of recent months have called for the scrapping of the elections and the establishment of a constituent assembly that could decisively change political representation in Guatemala.
Their calls are unlikely to be heeded.