Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 216 | Julio 1999



Why Was the Referendum Defeated?

How was the referendum in which Guatemalan citizens voted to approve or reject important Constitutional reforms presented? What was at stake? Why were the reforms rejected, and how will this affect the Peace Accords? The answers to these and many other questions should have a great deal of weight during this electoral year.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

On Sunday, May 16, 1999, the Guatemalan population voted to approve or reject the constitutional reforms drafted as a way of implementing some of the most important agreements reached in the peace accords signed on December 29, 1996. Fewer than one in five registered voters turned out: 18.5%, or 757,978 of a total of 4,058,832 eligible voters, assuming that the registry had been cleared of deceased voters. At the end of the day, the big winner was clearly the level of abstention.

The vote was legal, but not representative

The referendum covered some 50 modifications to the Constitution, which the legislature originally packaged as a yes-no alternative. A constitutional challenge, however, forced it to group the proposed reforms in such a way that voters could at least respond to four separate groupings. The first one dealt with the definition of the Guatemalan nation and basic social rights, covering seven constitutional reforms and three transitional measures. The second one was on the functions of the legislative branch, and included seven reforms and one transitional measure. The third involved the executive branch and included nine reforms and one transitional measure, while the fourth, on the judicial branch and the administration of justice, covered sixteen reforms and three transitional measures.

All four questions were voted down, though the percentages of “yes” and “no” votes varied somewhat. To the first question, which included the definition of Guatemala as a single, united nation that is also multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic, 9.03% of registered voters said “no” and 8.08% said “yes.” Question four, which aimed to respond to citizen concerns over security and the need to improve the justice system by increasing funding for the Supreme Court from 2% to 6% of the national budget and professionalizing the judicial institution, was rejected by 9.19% of registered voters and approved by 7.80%. Question three included measures to restrict army operations, limiting its involvement in the country's internal security to special circumstances and only after the President's decision is approved by Congress, and making it possible for a civilian to head the Ministry of Defense. But it was rejected by 9.66% of the registered voters, over the 7.26% who approved it. Question two covered a series of issues related to the number of congressional representatives, Congress' responsibilities and citizens' access to legislative processes, and would have put Congress in charge of overseeing the national intelligence systems; it was voted down by 9.92% of registered voters, while 7.01% voted to approve it.

On each of these four questions, roughly 1.5% of the registered voters left their votes blank or spoiled their ballot papers. Thus on none of the questions did the triumphant “no” represent the will of even one-tenth of the country's registered voters. It is a legal vote, but not a representative one. The same would have been true had the reforms been approved with similar percentages.

Distribution of votes

The results split Guatemala right down the middle. The reforms were rejected in 13 departments in the north, east, center and south of the country. Most of these have a predominantly ladino population, except Quetzaltenango, Suchitepéquez, Sacatepéquez (where the colonial capital and tourist center Antigua is located) and the department of Guatemala, based around the capital itself, where indigenous people now form the majority following the massive internal displacements of the 1980s. In nine departments in the west and north, the reforms were approved. All of these are predominantly indigenous, except El Petén. It is also notable that the reforms were approved in departments most painfully affected by the war in the 1980s and early 1990s. Most of the departments where the reforms were voted down had not really been affected by the war since the 1960s, if at all.

The departments in the predominately indigenous northwestern highlands are the most densely populated in the country, apart from the central highlands where the capital city is located. Given the slight difference between “no” and “yes” votes overall, it was clearly the enormous difference between them in the capital that tilted the scale against the reforms on a national level.

The “no” vote was a big surprise, something perhaps best reflected in a cartoon in Prensa Libre which depicted an enormous jack-in-the-box with a NO popping out on a spring, leaving various protagonists of the peace accords standing with their mouths agape, including President Alvaro Arzú, Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) comandante Rodrigo Asturias (known as “Gaspar Ilom”) and Arnoldo Noriega, the URNG's representative in the Accompaniment Commission. Standing in the background is the ruling National Advancement Party's (PAN's) presidential candidate Oscar Berger.

And they weren't the only ones surprised; the results astonished everyone. Otherwise, the abstentionism—which had been expected—turned out to be slightly less than the level registered in the 1994 referendum on constitutional reforms to clean up Congress following serious allegations of corruption. Only 15% of the registered voters turned out for that vote.

Long, confusing process

One of the causes of the high abstention level was the way the referendum was presented. To begin the process of fulfilling the peace accords required a number of electoral reforms that involved changing between 10 and 20 constitutional articles. The proposal presented by the executive branch for congressional approval asked for the reform of 13 articles.

The Constitution stipulates that constitutional reforms require a two-thirds majority in Congress, which means that the reforms can then be put to the public in a referendum. In the extremely long process to obtain the necessary votes—which dragged on from mid-1997 to October 1998—the proposal was further complicated by a mountain of additional changes that ultimately affected nearly 50 articles. The whole lengthy process took place in the context of multi-party negotiations, apparently designed to overcome the lack of participation and the secrecy inherent in the top-level peace accord negotiations. The political parties in Congress took advantage of this process, however, to trade votes in favor of the reforms required by the peace accords for other reforms they could use in this year's electoral campaign as evidence of their concern for the people, as well as some self-serving reforms concerning the role played by Congress. As a result, it proved very difficult to sell the final package of constitutional reforms to the population.

Sterile debates and formalities

Both the PAN and Efraín Rios Montt's Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), the parties that dominate Congress, did everything formally required to bring the constitutional reforms needed to accelerate fulfillment of the peace accords to a referendum. But they went no further than that. They did little to mobilize the population to support the reforms or obtain the budget necessary for a public information campaign, especially a radio campaign that would have reached the illiterate majority of the population. None of the parties offered the rural majority or the poor urban majority free transport and food to compensate for the time and work days lost in traveling to the polling places in distant municipal centers. Such “efforts” are reserved for presidential, legislative and municipal elections, when political posts are at stake.

Above all, the parties got tangled up in interminable discussions over reforms to the electoral legislation, which were also stipulated in the peace accords. They failed to reach an agreement on limits to campaign spending, rejecting the idea of using state funds to finance transportation to polling places, and blocking the introduction of a new system to locate voting booths closer to where people actually live. It is currently only possible to vote in municipal seats and not in one's own town. And in large cities, the assignation of voters to voting centers is not done according to neighborhoods.

For all of these reasons, there is a well-founded suspicion that the only ones really interested in promoting the reforms were top government and URNG officials, who trusted in their ability to mobilize the yes vote. It was not until the last minute that FRG leaders changed their position; afraid that they would be branded as opposed not only to the government but also to the peace process, they turned out in 40 of the country's municipalities to encourage people to vote “yes.”

The role of Catholics and Evangelicals

In many departments in the indigenous western highlands and El Petén, the Catholic Church tried to mobilize people in favor of the reforms. It was especially concerned about promoting the country's demilitarization, modernization of the army, recognition—at least legally—of the country's cultural, ethnic and linguistic complexity, and the effort to fight corruption in the courts and professionalize the judicial system. The Church lost an opportunity to encourage a yes vote in the capital, however, when it failed to take advantage of the enormous turnout for the mass celebrated to mark the anniversary of Monsignor Gerardi's assassination.

More than a few Pentecostal churches called on people to vote against the reforms. In one municipality in the indigenous western highlands with an Evangelical majority, pastors used slogans such as, “If you vote yes, you must be Catholic” or “If you vote yes, you'll have to light candles and burn incense in the temples.” In other places, they claimed, “If you vote yes, you're a guerrilla fighter,” “If you vote yes, they'll hike our taxes,” or “If you vote yes, they'll take away our land.”

The right's “sacred fire”

Counting on the weight of votes in the capital, especially those of people with a formal education, the debate over the reforms was mainly concentrated in the newspapers during the six weeks leading up to the referendum. In increasingly frequent full-page ads, Francisco Bianchi, the presidential precandidate for the Democratic Reconciliation Action (ARDE), called on people to vote no. Seventeen years ago, Bianchi—like retired General Ríos Montt, a member of the Church of the Word—was the general's secretary and de facto head of state. He masterminded the campaign to force indigenous people to convert to Protestantism, particularly his church, as a way of proving that they were not subversives. The New York Times, which interviewed him at the time, quoted him as saying that indigenous people, even civilians, had to be killed if they supported the subversives. Today, Bianchi denies ever having made these statements. After Ríos Montt's FRG began to move from the right towards the center, Bianchi founded ARDE to keep the “sacred fire” alight. His newspaper ads encouraged people to vote no “because accepting the reforms would help further divide the country, while not voting, besides letting others decide for you, would put our precarious democracy in danger.”
Although it may not have intended to, the FRG seemed to play two hands: while its leaders appeared to support the reforms, its frontman, Francisco Bianchi, worked against them.

The debate in the papers

Columnists also made their opinions known in the editorial pages of the leading papers. In Prensa Libre, the country's best-selling paper, opinions were distributed evenly for and against the reforms. In the end the newspaper came out in favor of them, although with certain reservations.
In El Periódico, the paper with probably the most and best investigative reporting, most editorials supported the reforms, although there was no shortage of opinions against them. The newspaper published a full-page announcement of its intention to challenge one of the reforms since it would legalize telephone espionage, although the paper's editor retracted the statement and published a full explanation the following day.

Siglo XXI, which is generally considered to reflect military thinking, came out against the reforms editorially. Most of its columnists also encouraged people to vote no, although some supported the reforms.

Ladino racism

Two points stood out in this debate in the papers. Firstly, a large sector of the ladino population feared that the constitutional reforms would shift the balance of power in Guatemala, starting a dangerous trend by recognizing the majority status of the Mayan population and their cultural values, spirituality, common law and languages.

Underlying this fear is the hidden racism that has always prevailed in the culture of criollos, or Guatemalans of European descent, and ladinos, of mixed European/indigenous stock but who eschew any indigenous cultural identity. This racism was never so radical as to proscribe racial mixing or mestizaje, and is not inscribed in discriminatory or segregationist apartheid-type laws.
But this racism is inscribed in our constitutional and legal texts, generally by omission. For example, the Mayan people have no right to express themselves in their own language when they have to bring suit or defend themselves in court. It is mainly inscribed in the language of ladinos and criollos: “la indiada” is the multitude of indigenous people whose threatening predominance in number may not be recognized in the censuses but is generally recognized and feared; “el indito” or “la indita” (“the little Indian”) are those admitted condescendingly and only if they know their place. Terms like “vos, indio shuco,” (“you dirty Indian”) and “vos, indio haragán” (“you lazy Indian) are ironically used in deprecating reference to the people who have done the hardest work in this country for centuries. And there are many other similar expressions.

It may be difficult to publicly confess this racism, but it pervades everything unless conscious efforts are made to overcome and reject it. In the debate leading up to the referendum, it appeared in affirmations that the reforms “are going to divide us,” that constitutional “privileges” can't be given to some ethnic groups without giving them to others, although this has never stopped ladinos, no matter how poor, from believing that they could look down on any indigenous person. This racism also underlay arguments that specifically naming Mayan ethnic groups in the constitution would violate the recognition of “the equality of all before the law,” while in everyday life the centuries-old “greater equality” of certain ethnic groups, classes and conglomerates is still going strong.

A justified concern

The other point emphasized in the papers is quite legitimate. It is the fear that the Constitution will be changed bit by bit through legislative decrees and referendums with very low turnouts, when all these necessary reforms should be made by a constitutional assembly that represents the population and has the necessary time and space to reflect on the changes and draw up adequate reforms.

The fear led to the way that Congress tried to put forward the reforms: nearly 50, reforms, many of them unconnected, in a package that was very hard to assimilate. It was quite difficult to express an opinion about the wisdom or appropriateness of the reforms or explain them to the public, to whom they were presented by means of an ineffective communications strategy—through the written word alone—ignoring other methods and forums like radio or television and face-to-face debates.

Lack of information

Neither the abstentionism nor the “triumph” of the “no” vote can be interpreted to mean that people were indifferent to the content of the reforms or are politically inept. Just the opposite. What people “said” is that they didn't have information. The Costa Rican firm Borge and Associates is carrying out several polls in the country during this election year. A post-referendum survey asked, “Why do you think the reforms were voted down?” to which the majority of those surveyed, 30.3%, answered, “Because of a lack of information.” To this response we should probably add the 35.9% who didn't know or didn't respond, as this was probably also due to a lack information. Only 9.2% gave the hard-line response: the reforms were voted down “because people don't want change.” Another 7.1% responded “because of a lack of credibility,” presumably the credibility of the government and the URNG, which proposed the reforms. And 4.5% said that “the laws favor the government,” as a way of saying that people are not stupid.

Sticking with “peace”

The light, superficial presentation of the referendum was another reason why many people stayed away from the voting booths. Considering that 45% of the registered voters turned out in the first round of the 1995 elections to choose between Arzú (PAN) and Portillo (FRG), it is quite feasible that, with better information, the turnout for this referendum might have reached 30-35% rather than a mere 18.5%. But such an information effort would have required a clearer, more decided commitment to change on the part of the leading political parties, and a greater mobilizing capacity than currently exists among the URNG and its allies in the Alliance for a New Nation (ANN).

Despite everything, the results do not mean that the majority of the population has voted against the peace process. The same survey asked, “Do you think that the next government should continue the peace process?” An overwhelming 83.9% of the population answered “yes,” while only 6.4% said “no” and 9.7% said they didn't know or didn't answer. This represents a resounding affirmation of something called “peace.” It is not easy to get people to associate the “peace process” with the “peace accords,” however, or to state that people want peace but reject many of the points in the peace accords, precisely because there has been no campaign to really inform people about the contents of the accords.

In this electoral year, no presidential candidate can afford to underplay the importance of fulfilling the peace accords in their program. But it is also true that the peace accords do not figure strongly in the minds of the majority of the population. Peace apparently does, at least in terms of the absence of war and increased security in the lives of people and their families. But moving from this minimum understanding of peace to the more far-reaching definition contained in the peace accords is a task that still requires a good deal of public education, if the idea of the new nation with more modern institutions is to be linked with the old struggle for survival that consumes most Guatemalans.

Growing abstentionism

A number of conclusions can be drawn from this referendum. One is that the referendum itself confirms the increasing abstentionism that has accompanied the transition to democracy. During this process, which began for the second time in Guatemala's modern history in 1984 (the first attempt, the “revolutionary” period of 1944-54, was frustrated by US intervention), the participation of registered voters in the electoral events has been steadily decreasing. While 78% of registered voters turned out to elect the constitutional assembly in 1984, 69% participated in the 1985 elections in which Vinicio Cerezo was chosen as the first civilian president since 1966. In 1990, only 56.4% of registered voters turned out for the first round of the presidential elections, and even fewer bothered to vote in the second round which brought to office the country's first elected Protestant president, Jorge Serrano, who was thrown out after he attempted to dissolve Congress in 1993. In 1995 only 45% deposited their votes for the presidential elections, which Alvaro Arzú would win in the second round in January 1996 with the participation of just over 12% of the registered voters.

This drop, then, is not only steady but very significant: over 11 years, participation in legislative and presidential elections dropped from 78% to 45%, and in second rounds as few as 12%. In the 1994 referendum, only 15% of the registered voters turned out, and in this year's referendum, 18.5%.

Lack of confidence in the political system

The drop reflects people's declining confidence in the electoral processes of democracy. They value the peace process, but do not believe we are making progress in human rights or in more equitable access to education, health, income and employment. People don't feel we are progressing in the transition to democracy, although the difficult concept of “transition” is not often mentioned. The figures are striking: 73% of people believe that their elected representatives do a bad job; 69.7% that political parties do a bad job; 66.4% that the courts do a bad job; and 54.4% that the government does a bad job.

Fears in the “patria del criollo

The second conclusion that can be drawn from the referendum is that in many ways Guatemala continues to be “la patria del criollo” (“the criollo homeland”), to borrow the title from Severo Martínez's important study.

The closest thing we have to an objective indication of the reasons or motives behind the vote is the Borge and Associates survey, in which 30% of those polled said the reforms were voted down due to a lack of information and 36% didn't know or didn't answer. If lack of information was indeed the determining factor, the vote in the capital, where the reforms were rejected nearly three to one, was clearly crucial. Over one-fourth of the nation's registered voters live in the capital, and nearly 20% of them turned out to vote.

It is not irrational to suggest that the latent racism in much of the publicity campaign against the reforms influenced the results in the capital. Nor is it irrational to suppose that the fear of being left without an army, whose traditional mission is to guarantee the country's internal security, influenced the votes of the many Guatemala City residents who are afraid of the indigenous population's growing influence.

For more than a few middle- class people and the majority of the upper class, “the country's” internal security coincides with the internal security of “the criollo homeland.” The charges made by so many newspaper columnists that the constitutional reforms were the price demanded by international organizations (including the United Nation's Mission for Guatemala, MINUGUA) and by the United States and the European Union for financing the peace process had their intended effect on many of these residents of the capital who have a very limited definition of nationalism.

The turnout was highest in indigenous departments like Sololá, where 30% of registered voters turned out, and Alta Verapaz where 27% did likewise. The predominance of yes votes in the indigenous northwestern highlands, however, was not sufficient to outweigh the fears and prejudices of the capital's residents.

Experience of the war

The third conclusion that can be drawn from the referendum has to do with how much people were affected by the war. It would be wrong to say that this vote divided the country along ethnic lines. Quetzaltenango, Sacatepéquez and Suchitepéquez, three departments with Mayan majorities, voted “no,” while El Petén, with a ladino majority, voted “yes.” Meanwhile, two departments, one with an indigenous majority (Totonicapán) and another with a ladino majority (Jalapa) voted “yes” for some questions and “no” for others.

The country was divided, but along another line: whether or not people had felt the devastating effects of the war. For this reason, it is neither reasonable nor responsible to sound the alarm with catastrophic forecasts that armed conflict could break out again in the near future along ethnic lines.

But nor is it reasonable to ignore the potential for disenchantment and even anger that exists among an indigenous majority that has once again seen its legitimate rights ignored and even denied.

Globalization and a sense of nationality that supercedes absolute sovereignty but also respects local cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious identities must be on our present agenda if we do not want to continue fueling conflicts that could lead to tragedies on the scale of the great lakes in Africa or the Balkans in Europe.

In Guatemala, we cannot ignore the fact that six out of every ten people are of Mayan origin, although they do not always identify themselves as such when they respond to surveys precisely because of the latent, shameful racism that forms the dense social atmosphere in which we live.

Necessary changes

It is not likely that the current government will make a new effort to fulfill the peace accords through regular legislation, although this would be a viable option. Legislation could be used, for example, to define what exactly is implied by “internal security” while the executive branch could increase the budget assigned to the judicial branch. On the other hand, it is not unlikely that whatever new government is elected will attempt to call a constitutional assembly to revise the constitutional profile of the Guatemalan state. These changes must be made if Guatemala is to participate in the universal trend towards globalization as a more modernized nation. It cannot remain on the margins without paying a very high price for lagging behind.

Juan Hernández Pico, sj, is the envío correspondent in Guatemala.

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