Guatemala is confronting a fast-moving crisis of political legitimacy, as prosecutors reveal new evidence that appears to implicate President Otto Pérez Molina and his former vice president in an allegedly massive tax fraud scheme. Powerful business and civil society organisations are calling for the president’s resignation. Almost twenty years after the end of a bloody civil war, Guatemala has an opportunity to overcome a legacy of impunity, weak institutions and crippled political parties. At the same time, there is a danger that hope could turn into frustration and even violence if political actors fail to respect constitutional rules, and those chosen in the 6 September elections for president and Congress ignore popular demands for justice and transparency.
The tax fraud case, dubbed “La Línea” after the telephone line said to have been used by importers to reduce customs duties in exchange for bribes, is one of several corruption scandals involving high-level government officers that have rocked the country since April. A special legislative commission voted unanimously on 29 August to lift the president’s immunity, a decision now before the full Congress. If a super-majority of at least 105 of 158 lawmakers agrees, prosecutors can then file charges against the president in criminal court.
Pérez Molina, who is ineligible for re-election and whose term ends on 14 January, has denied responsibility and refused to resign. He accuses the private sector of complicity in the racket and denounces unnamed foreign actors’ intervention in internal affairs. Backing national prosecutors in these investigations is the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a hybrid body established with UN help in 2006 to investigate and dismantle illicit groups operating within state institutions. Its mandate was recently extended to 2017.
Support for the president is falling away rapidly. More than a dozen high-level government officers have resigned, while the most powerful private sector association, the Catholic Church, human-rights groups, academic institutions and dozens of civil society organisations have called for him to step down. Thousands of protestors have taken to the streets to demand that Congress withdraw his immunity. Some also call for the elections to be postponed, allowing candidates independent of a political system now widely viewed as corrupt to run.
As CICIG pointed out in a July report, Guatemala’s political parties tend to be clientelistic machines that pursue power to extract personal benefits, not to channel broad political demands. The candidates in Sunday’s general elections, which will choose the national congress plus local authorities by simple majorities, mainly appear to represent politics as usual, rather than the change many citizens are demanding. Unless one of the three main contenders for the presidency achieves an absolute majority, there will be a runoff on 25 October.
The new Congress’ first business, when it takes office on 14 January, should be cleaning up the political system. It needs to begin by reforming the electoral law to strengthen oversight of campaign financing, limit lawmakers’ and mayors’ terms, allow grassroots movements to run independent candidates and provide equal access to mass media. Laws governing the civil service, transparency and the justice sector should be reformed next. A proposal by the electoral authority to modify campaign laws, which remarkably enjoys support of more than 100 civil organisations, was stalled in the old Congress. Those chosen in the upcoming elections will be scrutinised closely by an increasingly organised civil society determined to push for change and hold leaders accountable for wrongdoing.
National prosecutors and CICIG, with strong public support, are showing that no one is above the law. Guatemala has the opportunity to transform a political crisis into cleaner and more accountable government and in so doing provide a lesson that other Central American nations, particularly Honduras, should heed.
In addition to legislative reforms, however, much remains to be done to sever politics from crime. Prosecutors must still work to dismantle illegal structures. Trials must be open, with full respect for defendants’ rights. Those demanding justice in the streets need to be ready to accept both guilty and not-guilty verdicts. The elections must be free and fair, so that the results are widely respected. While it is remarkable that the business community and civil organisations are working side by side, they will need to incorporate internal reforms to prove that their intentions are for the greater good of Guatemalan society.
If the resignation of the president is accepted by the Congress, or if the position becomes vacant permanently for any other reason, the constitution requires that he be succeeded by the vice president, who is then to present Congress with three candidates for his own replacement. These legal procedures must be respected. Likewise, the government must continue to respect the rights of protesters, who in turn must continue to act peacefully and avoid provocation.
The judicial authorities, backed by an energised citizenry, have gained the initiative in this crisis. This is a welcome departure from Guatemalan history, which includes attempts in 1987 and 1988 to overthrow the elected governments that ended decades of military domination; an effort in 1993 by an elected president to dissolve Congress and the Supreme Court; and, traditionally, the shaping of events by parallel or outside powers, including the U.S.
Accountability, social participation and political reform offer the best chance yet to fulfil the dreams of Guatemalans who, with international support, crafted the 1996 peace agreements with the goal of building a democratic, inclusive society based on strong, transparent institutions.