Guatemala: Can a vote defeat entrenched corruption?

Despite jubilation at dozens of political resignations and arrests in recent months, voters demand fundamental reforms.

Demonstrators hold defaced campaign posters of presidential hopeful Manuel Baldizon as they demand election reform in Guatemala City on Saturday [Moises Castillo/AP]

Guatemala City, Guatemala – Voters go to the polls on Sunday faced with a motley crew of candidates and political parties mired in allegations of corruption and organised crime, in what promises to be a volatile new chapter in the unfolding political drama gripping the nation.

The country’s political landscape has been plunged into turmoil in recent months following a series of shocking corruption scandals involving the political, business, and military elites that have spurred a bold new social movement determined to end the status quo.

Amid growing voter frustration, political new kid on the block Jimmy Morales, a TV actor and comedian, has become a genuine contender.

“I’m so fed up with the same politicians, we have to stop them, so I am voting for Jimmy because he’s new and has good intentions and is the only candidate who will change things,” Irma Velasquez, 32, an accountant, told Al Jazeera.

 Guatemala in turmoil ahead of elections

Far-right wealthy businessman Manuel Baldizon is the presidential front-runner with an estimated 30 percent of voters – from mainly rural areas – supporting the Lider party candidate.

One of the most controversial names on the ballot is Zury Rios Sosa – daughter of the former dictator Efrain Rios Montt.

The Supreme Court sanctioned her candidacy even though the constitution forbids any close relative of a former head of state who came to power through a coup – as her father did in 1982 -­­ from being president or vice president. 

RELATED: ‘Guatemalan Spring’ celebrated ahead of elections

Last week President Otto Perez Molina was stripped of his immunity, forced to resign the presidency, and jailed in order to face allegations of corruption, illicit association, and bribery linked to a multimillion dollar customs scam after hundreds of thousands took to the streets.

It was a huge moment in the county’s collective psyche to see Perez Molina – a former elite soldier of the feared Kaibil Special Forces and ex-chief of a shadowy military-intelligence unit that during the civil war was synonymous with corruption, murder, disappearances and torture – in the dock as an ordinary accused criminal.

He went from president to prisoner overnight.

But despite the jubilation at dozens of resignations and arrests in recent months, it is no longer enough. People want fundamental reforms amid mounting evidence of generalised corruption within the political system.

Troubled state of affairs

In the past few months, an astonishing number of elected officials and new candidates at all levels of government have been implicated in corruption and organised crime investigations by the public ministry and the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) – the UN-sanctioned, independent investigative body that has helped prosecutors since 2007. 

While the comedian Morales claims to be a political outsider, analysts have pointed out his connections to a powerful group of right-wing former military officers – some of whom were implicated in an earlier customs scandal dismantled in the 1990s

Candidate Baldizon, who formed an alliance with Perez Molina’s Patriotic Party after placing second in the 2011 presidential elections, has for years been linked to dodgy political financing.

The party’s vice presidential candidate Edgar Baltazar Barquin, former president of the national bank, was also recently implicated in a fraud ring. Seven of its congressmen are under investigation.

Calls to ban the Lider party from Sunday’s election intensified last week after it was fined $250,000 for flouting the campaign spending cap.

Any doubters about the audacious infiltration of dark forces into Guatemalan politics were silenced in July, when CICIG revealed that political parties receive half their financing through corruption – 25 percent from wealthy elites and businesses and 25 percent from organised crime groups.

Weak and unenforced campaign finance regulations have allowed these groups and individuals to launder money and gain access to political favours and public contracts, CICIG said. 


These relentless revelations of corruption have led to last minute protests demanding the elections be suspended in order to allow urgent reforms and new candidates to emerge.

Martin Rodriguez Pellecer, founder of investigative news website Nomada, told Al Jazeera: “Three days ago the president resigned and was jailed. Current criminal investigations suggest around 30 percent of those elected to Congress [today] will end up in jail for money laundering or links to drug trafficking. These are not the right conditions to hold elections… The whole system is corrupt so this process of reform or revolution that we’re living must continue.”

Need to vote

Not everyone agrees.

“This is the biggest political crisis in 30 years but we must have elections and then widespread reforms to the justice, electoral, party funding and tax systems,” said Phillip Chicola, a political analyst at the influential Chamber of Commerce.

However, Chicola acknowledged that the election campaigns have lacked depth.

“There’s been no plans for government, no debate about how to create jobs or control corruption, just good intentions. It’s going to be a very complicated situation with budget deficits, corruption cases, and a very active population. We could enter a period of ungovernability,” he warned.

RELATED: People-power and the ‘Guatemalan Spring’

The latest polls suggest up to 30 percent of the 7.5 million eligible voters could abstain or spoil their ballots in protest. This makes the results and reaction impossible to predict.

Andres Quezada, 22, works in public relations and is one the young people behind the #justiciaya campaign, which has inspired the so-called “Guatemalan Spring”.

“Today is nothing to celebrate, it’s a tragedy. Elections should be about change and hope and a better future, but there are no genuine or worthy candidates to vote for. If I vote, I will be legitimising a corrupt system. That isn’t democracy; it’s a vicious cycle we have to break.”

It’s highly unlikely that any presidential candidate will secure 50 percent of the votes, which means the two frontrunners will face a run-off on October 25. The winner will assume power in January.

Until then, ultra-conservative Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, 79, is in charge. Maldonado was sworn in as temporary leader on Thursday following Perez Molina’s resignation – just three months after replacing alleged fraudster Roxana Baldetti as vice president.

It’s a big moment for the ambitious Maldonado who ran for president in 1982, but lost. He immediately sacked the beleaguered cabinet and acknowledged the urgent need to regain public confidence.

 Al Jazeera talks to Alejandro Maldonado

Skeletons in the closet 

His own past may make this difficult.  

Maldonado was part of the National Liberation Movement in the 1960s and ’70s, which promoted itself as “the party of organised violence” and accused of using death squads that terrorised communities during the civil war.

More recently he was one of the Constitutional Court judges who overturned the historic 2013 ruling that found Rios Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Maldonado retains close ties to the armed forces and business elite, and could use his four months as president to influence important reforms in their favour, according investigative journalist Luis Solano.

“There’s going to be an intense struggle to redefine the state over the next year,” Solano told Al Jazeera. “A lot will depend on the citizens’ movement and how much it pressures the new government to break links with organised crime and impunity.” 

Source: Al Jazeera