Guatemala’s president | Not so serene

EconomistSep 5th 2015

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In a regional breakthrough, a leader is forced out by charges of graft

“I AM completely calm,” declared Otto Pérez Molina, stoutly, at a press conference on August 31st. He was referring to the corruption allegations he faced. By the next evening, he had much less reason to be sanguine, because the country’s lawmakers voted to end his immunity from prosecution. Hours later, he was barred from leaving the country; then an arrest warrant was issued, and he resigned.

Mr Pérez becomes the first leader of Guatemala to be forced out of office and made to face legal proceedings because of sleaze. For anti-corruption campaigners throughout Latin America, the news was a rare and sweet breakthrough for the principle that holders of high office must be held to account like everybody else. In Guatemala, a land which is still riven by social divisions and demands for justice after a long civil war which ended in 1996, street protesters cheered enthusiastically.

The president stands accused of involvement in La Línea, a scheme named after the hotline it used, in which customs officials are alleged to have accepted kickbacks in exchange for reducing the import duties companies were required to pay.

Allegations linking the president to La Línea are not new. Congressmen had already voted once before on removing Mr Pérez’s immunity, but supporters of the move did not reach the two-thirds threshold required by the constitution. On August 21st, though, the attorney-general’s office together with the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-backed institution created in 2007 to investigate high-level crime, again presented the case. The vice-president, Roxana Baldetti, was arrested that same day on charges linked to La Línea. She had resigned earlier in the year after a former aide was accused of being the scam’s ringleader. According to Iván Velásquez, the Colombian head of CICIG, the “number 1” and “number 2” mentioned in tapped conversations between La Línea’s players may have been Mr Pérez and Ms Baldetti.

The move to strip immunity was approved by the Supreme Court and by a congressional committee, before Congress as a body reconsidered the matter. This time all those present at the vote—132 lawmakers, including several from Mr Pérez’s own Patriot Party—voted in favour.

The scheme is believed to have started before Mr Pérez became president. He has apologised for the fact that it continued during his tenure, but strongly denies any personal involvement. The attorney-general’s office has insisted all along that the head of state must be investigated like an ordinary citizen.

This latest brouhaha happened in the week before a presidential election that Mr Pérez is constitutionally barred from contesting. The favourite to top the polls on September 6th is Manuel Baldizón of the populist Lider party.

If no clear winner emerges the man most likely to be joining Mr Baldizón in a run-off election in October is Jimmy Morales, a comedian-turned-politician who has benefited from many voters’ disenchantment with the political class. But the fate suffered by Mr Pérez overturns many assumptions. Guatemalans who are cheered by the news could turn out to vote in far bigger numbers than expected. They may reward Lider for supporting the anti-immunity move and securing the president’s removal; on the other hand, they may back Mr Morales as the candidate of change.