Guatemalans prepare to vote in shadow of turmoil

Interim leader sees restoring confidence in state institutions as his main task as his predecessor faces a fraud probe.

After a week of political turmoil and with their former president in prison, Guatemalans will be heading to the voting booths to find his replacement.

The wave of political turmoil that toppled Otto Perez Molina has overshadowed Sunday’s vote to choose a new leader – an election many fear could put a lid on the anti-corruption drive.

Perez Molina resigned as president and was jailed on Thursday following a corruption investigation.

Tens of thousands who demonstrated for his removal got part of their wish when he resigned to face possible corruption charges in a customs fraud scheme.

Interim President Alejandro Maldonado talks to Al Jazeera

Perez Molina was spending the weekend in a military jail.

But a second major demand was not met: the postponement of the election that many said offered little alternative to the old guard.

Alejandro Maldonado, a 79-year-old conservative who became vice president in May, will serve out the rest of Perez Molina’s term, handing over power on January 14, 2016.

He said he sees restoring confidence in state institutions as his main task.

“I have the task of choosing a government made up of tried and trusted, mature people who believe in our institutions,” he told Al Jazeera in Guatemala City.

“But I also want to incorporate youngsters, social activists, to give those generations the opportunity to build the future.”

Leading in most polls with roughly 30 percent backing is Manuel Baldizon, a wealthy 44-year-old businessman and longtime politician.

His running mate is accused by prosecutors of influence trafficking but as a candidate, he has immunity from prosecution.

Competitive rivals

Baldizon’s most competitive rivals are a comedian with no political experience, a former first lady and the daughter of an ex-dictator accused of genocide.

If none of the 14 candidates reaches 50 percent, a runoff vote will be held on October 25.

Baldizon has acknowledged Guatemalans’ disgust with crime, corruption and impunity.

His campaign website vows a “modernisation of the democratic state” to reform government and combat poverty and social inequality.

Critics see Baldizon, who finished second in the last presidential race, as an example of what is wrong with the country’s political class.

RELATED: An end to impunity in Guatemala?

He initially campaigned on the slogan: “It’s his turn” – a reference to the fact that the last four elections have been won by the previous runner-up.

At protests, demonstrators have chanted: “It’s not your turn.”

After Baldizon’s campaign blew through the legal ceiling on electoral spending, he continued pouring money into his campaign, ignoring court orders to stop.

Baldizon’s campaign also says a lot about the country’s chronic insecurity.

Few believe that Sunday’s vote will solve deep problems like a 70 percent poverty rate and a pernicious gang influence [Reuters]

He has worn a white bulletproof vest designed to look like a jacket on his stops, travelling in a helicopter or armoured vehicle and accompanied by bodyguards toting automatic weapons.

Baldizon’s closest rivals include Jimmy Morales, a TV comic who boasts of his outsider status, and Sandra Torres, who divorced Alvaro Colom, a former president, in advance of the last presidential race to try to get around rules governing elections.

Also on the ballot is Zury Rios. Her father Efrain Rios Montt, a former absolute ruler, faces charges of crimes against humanity for killings by security forces during his 1982-83 regime.

“We’re waiting for them to return everything they stole and we’re talking about a lot of money. We need hospitals,” Ana Aragon, a protester, told Al Jazeera.

Criminal networks

According to a UN commission, Guatemalan politics are heavily financed by drug traffickers and other criminal networks in return for protection and favours.

A recent report by the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies calculated that 50 percent of party financing is dirty: from bribes and money laundering to influence peddling and tax evasion.

The report estimated that the national cost of corruption is $560m, or six percent of Guatemala’s annual budget.

Some critics are urging voters to go to the polls wearing black clothes of mourning, abstain, or cast null ballots.

Few believe that the vote will solve deep problems like a 70 percent poverty rate, 50 percent child malnutrition, pernicious gang influence and one of the world’s highest homicide rates.

Perez Molina resigned as president and was jailed on Thursday following a customs-fraud investigation [Reuters]
Source : Al Jazeera, News Agencies


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