Guatemala in turmoil ahead of Sunday’s election

Days after he resigned, former president denies he was involved in a conspiracy to defraud the state.

The wave of political turmoil that toppled Guatemala’s president will overshadow Sunday’s vote to elect a new leader in an election many fear could put a lid on the anti-corruption drive.

On Friday, former president Otto Perez Molina sat in a defendant’s chair and denied prosecutors’ allegations that he was involved in a conspiracy to defraud the state by letting businesses evade import duties in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes.

 Al Jazeera talks to Alejandro Maldonado

Perez Molina said he could have made “10 or 15 times” the amount he is accused of stealing if he had taken bribes once offered him by powerful Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

“The first thing I want to deny, I don’t belong to ‘La Linea,'” Perez Molina said, referring to the name of the fraud scheme, Spanish for “The Line.”  

The judge hearing Perez Molina’s case must now decide whether there is enough evidence to charge the former leader, and if so, whether he should await trail in jail. 

Tens of thousands who demonstrated for the toppling of Perez Molina got part of their wishes when the president resigned to face possible corruption charges in a customs fraud scheme. He was spending the weekend in a military lockup. 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 only became vice president in May, will serve out the rest of Perez Molina’s term, handing over on January 14. 

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

RELATED: An end to impunity in Guatemala?

Some critics are urging voters to go to the polls wearing black clothes of mourning, abstain or cast null ballots. On the streets it is hard to find a campaign poster that has not been covered with insults.

“The people are rejecting this political system, the mafia takeover of democracy. They feel like voting is simply selecting the next person who will loot the country,” said Manfredo Marroquin, president of the influential civic group Citizen Action.

“They are not rejecting democracy,” Marroquin said. “What they’re demanding is to reset, run an anti-virus and start over from scratch.”

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 enjoys immunity from prosecution.

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 will be held 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. 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.”

Tens of thousands demonstrated in Guatemala demanding Perez's resignation [AP]Tens of thousands demonstrated in Guatemala demanding Perez’s resignation [AP]

Baldizon’s closest rivals include Jimmy Morales, a TV comic who boasts of his outsider status, and Sandra Torres, who divorced former president Alvaro Colom ahead of the last presidential race to try to get around rules barring presidential relatives from running. She is a businesswoman and longtime political party figure.

Also on the ballot is Zury Rios. Her father, former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, 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. He did nothing for Guatemala,” Ana Aragon, a protester told Al Jazeera. 

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

Perez Molina faces likely charges of criminal association, taking bribes and customs fraud, prosecutors have said. He is also being investigated for money laundering.

Perez Molina was elected in late 2011 on a ticket to fight crime and corruption. Under Guatemala’s constitution, he was not allowed to seek re-election in Sunday’s presidential vote.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies


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