POLITICS

As President Otto Pérez Molina leaves office, Guatemalans rejoice and worry over future

Students in front of the National Palace in Guatemala City, Guatemala.

Students in front of the National Palace in Guatemala City, Guatemala.  ( )

When asked about President Otto Pérez Molina, 50-year-old Miguel Guzmán shakes his head. “I feel betrayed by him," he tells Fox News Latino. “It's good for the country that he's gone, no one should be above the law.”

Guatemala's disgraced president resigned Wednesday and faces trial over allegations of links to a massive corrupt network within the government. He was replaced by 79-year-old conservative Alejandro Maldonado, who was sworn in Thursday afternoon.

“I can only hope that his removal serves as an example for everyone who wants to steal and betray the people,” said Guzmán, who served under then field officer Pérez Molina during the 80s civil war.

“Back in the day he seemed incorruptible, but politics made him dirty,” he told Fox News Latino.

As Guatemala prepares for Sunday's general election, many here share Guzmán's feelings. This week has been an emotional roller coaster for the Central American country – first, widespread outrage over corruption, then jubilation over what appears to be a historical first step in purging the nation's business and political elite of it, and now, utter uncertainty over what comes next.

On Tuesday, Guatemala's congress lifted Pérez Molina's immunity from prosecution, after the Attorney General's office and CICIG, UN-backed anti-corruption agency, revealed evidence the president may have led a network of corrupt public officials who allegedly took millions of dollars in bribes to circumvent customs duties.

After months of angry protests by thousands of Guatemalans demanding his resignation and a string of resignations of cabinet members, the president finally gave in Wednesday; he resigned and attended an initial court hearing. Perez Molina joined dozens of other politicians, including former vice president Roxana Baldetti and businessmen already behind bars over the scandal, which has been dubbed 'La Línea' ('The Line').

Even if the scale of the corruption has shocked and outraged the country, most Guatemalans also feel the current political turmoil serves as a possible purging of a country that has suffered decades of civil war, political repression, epidemic corruption and high levels of impunity.

“It really feels like it's a new dawn for Guatemala,” 23-year-old student Jenny Pérez told FNL hours after the resignation, as she and hundreds of others gathered in front of the National Palace in Guatemala City's center to celebrate Pérez Molina's resignation, waving flags and lighting fireworks.

“The La Línea scandal has taught my generation that it's possible to successfully fight corruption and impunity,” Pérez told FNL. “There's a new political conscience growing among the people, which will make it much harder for politicians to lie and steal like they used to.”

The scandal appears to have a real effect on the outcome of Sunday's elections. For many months, victory seemed all but certain for Manuel Baldizón, a right-wing populist and runner-up in 2011's election, behind Pérez Molina. Ever since democracy was restored in the country in 1996, runner-ups would win the next election. So certain was Baldizón of his victory that he initially simply used 'Le Toca' ('It's his turn') as a campaign slogan.

The La Línea scandal, however, has shaken up Guatemalan politics. A poll published Wednesday by the Prensa Libre newspaper shows Baldizón has been overtaken by Jimmy Morales, a television star and comedian with virtually no political experience. During the campaign, Morales presented himself as an anti-establishment candidate with no ties to powerful interest groups and a clean history.

His message has been successful as the disgust many Guatemalans feel with their political class, which includes Manuel Baldizón, rises to unprecedented levels. Morales now leads the polls with 25 percent, with Baldizón trailing by two points. Sandra Torres, a social democrat and ex-wife of former president Álvaro Colom, comes in third with 18.4 percent.

The two candidates with the most votes will face each other in a run off in October.

Even if Morales wins the first round with his upstart, anti-establishment persona, Sunday's elections likely still come too soon to be a watershed moment in Guatemala's troubled political history. Apathy among voters is traditionally high and none of the candidates, not even Morales, have been able to convince voters that a bright future is dawning for the country.

“There’s been a call to postpone the elections and a call to boycott them. It’s not clear how many people will stay home because of these sentiments,” Mike Allison, a Central American politics expert and associate professor of political science at Scranton University, told FNL. “At the same time, according to surveys, one in five likely voters say that they will submit a null or blank ballot on Sunday. So it’s not clear how those who turn out to vote will actually vote.”

Indeed, most Guatemalans are careful to point out they do not expect that much will change after Sunday. “What happened this week is not a revolution, but it did lift the veil that many citizens had over their eyes," Delia Ayala, a 62-year-old housewife, told FNL. “We have finally realized how much we're being cheated on all the time. Change will come, even if it comes at a slow pace.”

Jan-Albert Hootsen is a freelance writer based in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter: @Jayhootsen