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Sep 3, 2015 | 18:25 GMT

Guatemala's President Steps Down Days Before Election

Guatemala's President Steps Down Days Before an Election
(RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina resigned late Sept. 2, hours after a judge issued an order to detain him for charges related to conspiracy, bribery and customs fraud. There are no signs of imminent, widespread social unrest or political instability. However, Perez Molina's capitulation — particularly if he goes to trial for any of the charges during Guatemala's upcoming presidential election — could fuel protests in Guatemala, especially those calling for the suspension of elections.

The former president turned himself over to the courts Sept. 3, and recently appointed Vice President Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre will serve as president until the winner of the presidential election is inaugurated in January. The vote will begin Sept. 6 and is likely to require a second round of voting in October. Meanwhile, the stability of Guatemala's political establishment will be tested.

The Guatemalan Congress, including members of Perez Molina's Patriotic Party, had just voted to strip the president of immunity the day before he stepped down. The vote, the presentation of criminal charges against Perez Molina and his resignation are unprecedented in Guatemala. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala is the driving force behind the investigations, which have led to a wide range of resignations and arrests including of former Vice President Roxanna Baldetti. The commission was established in 2006 under a treaty between the United Nations and Guatemala and operates within Guatemala's legal system to investigate and participate in the criminal prosecution of serious offenses related to clandestine security groups and government corruption. In conjunction with the commission's efforts, there have been large and frequent protests in Guatemala City calling for the resignation of the president since April.

Outside of any unforeseen challenges, the elections will continue as planned. Currently, the three leading candidates are Manuel Baldizon, from the center-right Renewed Democratic Liberty party; former First Lady Sandra Torres, from the center-left National Unity of Hope party; and Jimmy Morales, a professional comedian representing the National Front for Convergence, a party founded by former military officers.

So far, the corruption scandal and resulting protests have disrupted what has become a pattern in Guatemala's electoral system: The runner-up from the previous presidential election generally wins the next election. Until this month, Baldizon, the 2012 runner-up, had a commanding lead in the polls. Now, Morales is leading by a thin margin. Although the polls are an unreliable indicator of election results, the shift in opinion shows how much the corruption scandals have influenced voter sentiment.

Regardless of who wins the presidential election, Guatemala's foreign policy is unlikely to significantly change. Like Perez Molina, the next president will be charged with tackling the corruption and insecurity perceived to be rampant in the country. Security cooperation with the United States regarding drug trafficking and with Mexico regarding the countries' shared border is not threatened by the change in leadership.

Meanwhile, Guatemala's economy — which has grown, despite domestic challenges — is not likely to undergo a major upheaval if the elections continue as planned. However, the next president still might be faced with economic challenges; a drought in Central America threatens to disrupt Guatemala's agricultural sector, which provides the bulk of the country's exports.

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