Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 269 | Diciembre 2003



Presidential Elections up in the Air: First Round Results

A resounding “No!” to General Ríos Montt. A lower abstention rate, revealing Guatemalans’ rejection of their country’s militaristic, authoritarian and oligarchic past. And a pluralistic Congress,made up of a large number of political forces. These are the striking first-round results in this year’s elections.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

On November 9, 2003, over 80% of Guatemala’s voters gave a resounding “No!” to General Efraín Ríos Montt. Whether because of memories of the bloody past for which he was institutionally responsible, his role in and responsibility for the current government’s corruption or the empty moralistic speeches he repeated ad nauseum throughout his campaign, Ríos Montt was removed from the country’s political scene and consigned to history. Come January 14, he will be left with no cover of immunity to avoid the charges already brought against him or that may be brought against him in the future. This is one important result of the first round of Guatemala’s general elections.

Despite his loss...

Despite Ríos Montt’s loss, we must bear in mind that nearly a fifth (19%) of those who turn out cast their votes for him. His party, the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), will hold 43 (27%) of the 158 congressional seats. And as of November 30, the FRG had won 118 (nearly 36%) of the 331 municipal governments. The FRG managed to hold onto a far greater share of its power at the local level than it did nationally, and at the national level, it did better in the battle for Congress than in the race for the presidency.

An indecisive election

The presidential election remains up in the air. The Grand National Alliance (GANA), with Oscar Berger as its candidate, ended up in first place with over 900,000 votes, a little more than 34% of the valid vote. He won in the capital, the department of Guatemala, the east, most of the north (except the Petén) and part of the south.
The National Union for Hope (UNE) and its candidate Alvaro Colom took second place, with over 700,000, just over 26% of the valid vote. He won in parts of the west and the south. Ríos Montt won in two heavily indigenous western departments, Quiché and Huehuetenango. The indigenous world cannot be described as unified in these elections, however, since Colom and Ríos Montt split the west and Berger won in Alta and Baja Verapaz in the north.Only eight percentage points separated the first and second place candidates, a relatively small difference. In the second round, the election will lie in the hands of the 40% of the voters who opted for candidates other than Berger and Colom.

A split Congress

The inconclusive result in the presidential election was also reflected in the split results in Congress. Berger’s GANA won 47 of the 158 seats (29.74%), Ríos Montt’s FRG came in second with 43 (27.21%), Colom’s UNE followed with 32 (20.25%) and Leonel López Rodas’ National Advancement Party (PAN) was fourth with 17 (10.76%). Then came the smaller parties: the Unionist Party (PU, organized by former President Alvaro Arzú) with 7 seats (4.43%); the New Nation Alliance (ANN) with 6 seats (3.8%); the URNG and the Democratic Union (UD), each with 2 (1.26%); and the Christian Democrats (DCG, led by former President Vinicio Cerezo) and the Authentic Integral Development Party (DIA) with 1 seat each (0.63%). In contrast to the situation in three of the four previous governments since 1985—the period known in Guatemala as the “transition” from military rule to democracy—the new President will not enjoy an overwhelming majority in Congress. No party will have an absolute majority of 79 representatives, much less the two-thirds majority of 105 votes needed for certain bills and constitutional reforms.

Political parties fuzzily defined

Berger’s Grand National Alliance is generally perceived as rightwing, though it chose its name in an attempt to overcome this perception and present itself as a group aimed at uniting diverse social forces. Two of the three newly-formed parties that comprise it were established by business leaders: the Reform Party is led by Jorge Briz, a prominent member of the business umbrella association CACIF, and the National Solidarity Party is led by Ricardo Castillo Sinibaldi, a member of prominent industrial families and builder of a large amusement park for unionized workers and managers, while the Patriot Party is led by retired general Otto Pérez Molina. The coalition’s rightward leanings are somewhat moderated, however, by the presence of vice presidential candidacte Eduardo Stein, who served as foreign relations minister in Alvaro Arzú’s PAN government and is generally seen as a man of the Left.

The UNE is also a new party, largely made up of people from the left, including Mayan community representatives and professionals of some renown, as well as some military officers from the intelligence community. People tend to see it as more centrist than GANA. While the party defines itself as center-left, there are some dissonant notes, such as vice presidential candidate Fernando Andrade Díaz Durán, who served as foreign relations minister under the de facto military government of general Oscar Mejía Víctores and is still associated with Guatemala’s army. The FRG is perceived as—and indeed is—an authoritarian rightwing party that uses extremely demagogic populist language. It has given prominent posts to quite a few representatives of Mayan groups.
The PAN and PU are on the right, as is the UD and the current DCG. Only the ANN and the URNG are generally seen as leftist; between them they will hold about 5% of the seats in Congress.

The choice in the second round

Are there two distinct options in the second round? It is hard to find many ideological differences between these two public figures, but in terms of general perceptions, voters will have a choice between a pro-business, even oligarchic Right represented by Oscar Berger, and a socially-minded, ethnically-diverse center Left represented by Alvaro Colom. But these “differences” will probably dissolve once the new President is in office. In personal terms, voters have a clearer choice. Oscar Berger is a successful agricultural producer who served two terms as mayor of Guatemala City—when he ran for reelection, he pulled many more votes in the capital than President Arzú himself—but was defeated in the 1999 presidential race. He is a basically honest man of average intelligence, expert at organizing and managing municipal associations at the national and regional levels, and is generally seen as sympathetic and likeable. Alvaro Colom, a creative businessman, has also proven himself an honest, successful public official as deputy minister of the economy and director of the National Peace Fund (FONAPAZ). He ran as the Left’s presidential candidate in 1999 and has served as assistant dean of economics at the Jesuits’ Rafael Landívar University. He is known for his brilliant intelligence, his extensive knowledge of the country and his affinity for the Mayan people and their cosmovision. Certain sectors of public opinion, however, have stereotyped each of the candidates. Some see Berger as unstable and not very intelligent, while others see Colom as similarly unstable and an excessive partier. Those whose minds are still closed to inter-cultural understanding also see Colom as seduced by Mayan “superstitions.”

Relations with Congress

These contrasts may not be enough to clearly differentiate between the two candidates, however, or to give voters a clear idea of what they might expect from each over the next four years. One thing that could make a huge difference in the coming years unfortunately tends not to be very visible in presidential campaigns: the potential difference in the quality of the teams that will accompany the new President once in office, and the different degrees of confidence inspired by their private and public records. The President’s team is very important in any government, but it is especially the case in the current situation for several unique reasons. The fact that the newly elected Congress has several small benches will make it tough for the executive branch to negotiate the passage of new laws to support its political programs. That will be particularly true if Alvaro Colom wins, since it is unlikely that the GANA bench will hold together for long, leaving him to negotiate for the votes of his erstwhile supportive parties. Furthermore, although the FRG now appears to be covertly encouraging its supporters to vote for Colom, it will put up a solid opposition once he is elected in order to undermine his administration and prepare for its own return to power in 2008. The PAN representatives, who are now also falling in line behind the party leadership to support Colom, will be as hard to seduce as the FRG.

Things will be even worse for Oscar Berger if he is elected. Both the FRG and PAN will try to make his life impossible in Congress. And although in theory an alliance between GANA and the UNE cannot be dismissed, given the political maturity of more than a few of their representatives in Congress and of Colom himself, it is unlikely that it will be stable and disciplined enough to ensure the combined 80 votes of the two parties. The fact that hese votes are only one more than an absolute majority—would make for a fragile bloc.

Given the probability of some defections, either candidate would also have to rely on some votes from the other smaller benches, like the PU or the ANN. And it is extremely unlikely that either of the two potential Presidents could pull together the two-thirds majority needed for certain laws and constitutional reforms. Even parties that have won overwhelming victories, like the PAN in 1996-2000 and the FRG in 2000-2004, have been hard-pressed to do this.

Given this scenario, creative ways of forging alliances within Congress will have to be sought. They might, for example, try to negotiate with the various benches in a much more transparent way, renouncing the habit of blackmail and bribery. Or they might try to bring the pressure of mass organizations and civic institutions to bear on Congress, obliging the representatives to reconsider their intolerant positions and systematic efforts to block progress.

One thing is clear: the next President will have no other choice than to find ways of governing the country without depending overly on Congress. These could include relying on existing laws, using the Peace Accords to guide a national program and trying to mobilize the Guatemalan people to play a much more active social and political role. In a word, he will have to govern by strengthening the state and the rule of law to create a more participatory—not merely representative—democracy.

Berger’s team

The team brought together by the new President will be crucial in forging this kind of more democratic political action. The November 2 issue of El Periódico made an important effort to inform the public about who might be on each candidate’s team. The first person mentioned in Berger’s case was his wife Wendy Widmann, perceived as intelligent and sensitive to the country’s social realities. Eduardo Stein, the vice presidential candidate, was also named. He is an expert in food security and foreign relations, and instead of spewing forth during the campaign, he has been listening to the leaders of different groups in meetings held all around the country to detect people’s needs, instead of merely imagining them or speculating about them on paper.

Another name mentioned as a potential member of Berger’s team is Miguel “Miki” Fernández, former general manager of Pantaleón, S.A.—one of the country’s leading industrial complexes, based on sugar—and now manager of his own company, called Koramsa, whose 13,000 workers make it the largest maquila in Central America. Stein and Fernández are old friends of Berger’s, dating back to high school days at the Liceo Javier. Another person mentioned was Eduardo González, who left his position as president of the Coffee Bank, founded by his father, to enter politics. González was in the running to become PAN’s presidential candidate but dropped out to support Berger against Leonel López Rodas within the GANA alliance. When Berger won an overwhelming victory, he named González to lead his presidential campaign. Berger’s team could also include Richard Aitkenhead, who was finance minister in the governments of Jorge Serrano and Ramiro de León Carpio; he now works with Miguel Fernández in a political think tank. Jorge Briz and Castillo Sinibaldi, the leaders of two of the three parties that make up GANA, also have influence on Berger’s team.

Yet another probable member of Berger’s team is the leader of the third party in GANA, General Otto Pérez Molina, who directed the D-2 Army Intelligence and was one of the final negotiators of the Peace Accords. Removed from the army by President Arzú, he founded the Patriot Party. He and members of his family have been targeted by several attempted attacks, leading some analysts to wonder about his possible links to the “hidden powers” in the military that continue to wield strong influence on Guatemala’s political life.

Colom’s team

The first name mentioned by El Periódico in Alvaro Colom’s case was also that of his wife, Sandra Torres, the manager of a maquila who appears to have considerable organizational talents. Fernando Andrade Díaz Durán is an extremely capable man with considerable experience in foreign relations and a mastery of realpolitik; according to Colom, he obtained up to 10% of UNE’s financing. Rolando Morales was a leader of the ORPA, one of the four groups that came together to form the URNG, and former secretary of the Authentic Comprehensive Development party (DIA). When the DIA participated in the 1999 elections in an alliance with the ANN and the URNG, Morales became very good friends with Colom, who was running as the alliance’s candidate, and is now one of the most trusted members of his circle and the main source of support for his proposed state reform.

Other people named as possible members of Colom’s team include Fernando Luna, owner of a liquor distributor, recognized for his capacity to raise funds and lobby for projects. With no prior political experience, he joined Colom’s project a year ago. Fernando Monroy, UNE’s adjunct general secretary, made his mark in the ceramic tile business and has considerable financial expertise. He is also a relative newcomer to politics, having joined UNE just two years ago. Hugo Peña is a public relations specialist who coordinated the television strategy for Alfonso Portillo’s successful 1999 presidential campaign, then later coordinated López Rodas’ strategy to take control of the PAN; he appears to have a strong influence on Colom’s current campaign. Colom’s spiritual support is the Mayan priest Cirilo Pérez Oxjal, who introduced him to the Mayan cosmovision and has guided him to the point of becoming a Mayan priest himself.

The UNE’s ranks also include former military officers, including retired Colonel Mario Mérida, another former director of the D-2 Army Intelligence, who failed to obtain the Congressional seat he aspired to.

“Taking the lids off” the teams

Berger and Colom have acknowledged the exceptional importance of their advisers in the debates between their teams in the lead up to the second round of the voting. Given the importance of these teams, the candidates should go a step further and name some of the leading members of their future government cabinets, to “take the lids off” the pots they’re cooking. They could identify, for example, the people who would lead their teams on social issues, fiscal and other economic affairs, internal security and foreign trade.

This would show the electorate whether the candidates plan to surround themselves with political friends giving choice posts to prominent members of their parties and even to congressional representatives—thus mocking the will of the people who elected these representatives to Congress and not to the executive branch—or to preside over a national unity government that brings together the most competent people in each area, no matter what their party. The candidates would thus demonstrate whether they are essentially seeking competence or will be satisfied with political skill, even if accompanied by the incompetence that is the mother of all corruption.

A drop in the abstention rate

The results of the first round are novel in several ways. The first has to do with participation. Close to 3 million (2,937,636) of the 5,073,290 voters registered for these elections (nearly 58%) turned out to vote. This abstention rate of just over 42% is the lowest since 1985, the year of the first presidential election in the transition, when it was only 31%. It rose again during the next two elections, in 1990 and 1995, then fell somewhat in 1999 (see Table 3). It would appear that the call for a vote of conscience made by the opposition parties and civil society organizations, including the Guatemalan Bishops Conference, and the public awareness of what was at stake contributed to a turnout four percentage points higher than four years ago.

The abstention rate still reflects political disappointments, however. We have not yet been able to overcome the enormous disappointment and the frustration with democracy left by the presidency of Vinicio Cerezo (1986-1991), so full of unfulfilled promises as it became clear that civilian power remained under the shadow of the army and large-scale corruption. Until then, Guatemala’s Christian Democrats had represented a great hope, especially to the rural and indigenous population, which has not yet recovered its lost hope. Later, in 1995, the electorate once again expressed its lack of confidence in a democracy in which plots like the self-coup attempted by President Serrano were still a possibility. From 1985 to 1995, the participation rate in elections fell by 27 percentage points. President Portillo, with his spirited eloquence, seemingly ready to tackle the oligarchy, managed to increase participation by 12 points. Now, the abrupt end of the support for Portillo, the anger about the corruption in many government institutions—including the FRG-dominated Congress—and the fear of General Ríos Montt’s authoritarianism combined with the fear of those favored by the FRG that their advantages could disappear in a government inclined towards Guatemala’s large capitalists have all converged to increase participation in these elections. People don’t want to return to the past: neither the militaristic or paternalistic authoritarian one nor the oligarchic one.

Municipal results

Looking ahead to the second round on December 28, Alvaro Colom is trying to boost his chances in the Mayan west and in the capital. Based on his experience as mayor of Guatemala City and president of the Association of Municipalities, Oscar Berger has decided to reach out directly to the elected mayors, trying to brush aside party loyalties and bypass party structures. Although the FRG won the greatest number of municipal governments around the country, it did not have much success in any of the large cities, such as Guatemala City, Mixco, Villanueva, Cobán, San Pedro Carchá, Quetzaltenango and Escuintla. It won only three departmental capitals: Santa Cruz del Quiché, San Miguel Totonicapán and Jalapa.

The PU won in the capital with former President Alvaro Arzú, who does not openly support Berger, although Berger doesn’t need his support in the capital in any case. In contrast, the PAN’s newly-elected mayor of Mixco, the country’s second largest municipality, has given his support to Berger, as has the PAN’s mayor-elect in Quetzaltenango, along with the full party leadership in that city.

The GANA won the mayor’s office in seven departmental seats, including San Marcos, Chimaltenango, Cuilapa, Salamá, Cobán, Flores and Chiquimula. The PAN won it in six, including Antigua, Guastatoya, Puerto Barrios, Quetzaltenango, Retalhulehu and Jutiapa. The UNE won in Escuintla, the UD in Huehuetenango, and the three remaining departmental seats—Sololá, Mazatenango and Zacapa—were won by civic committees.

How to explain the FRG victories?

The municipal elections offered some surprising results. Although the FRG swept most of Quiché, the UNE won San Bartolomé Jocotenango, the paradigmatic example of the perpetuation of power by the military commissioners and Civil Self-Defense Patrols studied by the research institute AVANCSO. Two of the eight municipal governments won by the URNG are also in Quiché, including Ixcán, where the mayor was reelected despite the disorder provoked by opposition members in an attempt to prevent his victory.

There was great irony in the fact that the FRG won the three municipalities in Chiquimula—Camotán, Jocotán and Olopa—that had been publicized in the press as struck by famine and neglected by the FRG government, subsequently receiving considerable aid from private enterprise.

Another striking result was that the FRG won Rabinal despite the stones thrown at General Ríos Montt during his campaign rally in that city by survivors of the massacres who were re-burying the victims. And how to explain the fact that Ríos Montt himself won in two departments, Quiché and Huehuetenango, where the army committed some of its most horrendous massacres? For one thing, the FRG campaigned hard in these departments, still marked by the ethnic divisions forced on them by the introduction of the Civil Self-Defense Patrols. In addition, people’s lingering fear meant that the abstention rate was considerably higher than the national average in these two departments. But these surprising results should be more carefully investigated to identify other determining factors. In contrast, in neighboring Totonicapán, the government’s apparent bulwark over the past four years and the department in which Ríos Montt launched his campaign, his party won two of the four congressional seats and five of the eight municipal governments but the general himself was defeated.

The first post-election survey

On November 28, Vox Latina published its first post-election poll, which showed that Oscar Berger would have won with 58.6% of the valid vote if the second round had been held at the time of the survey. Berger polled better than Colom in all areas selected to measure which government the electorate felt would do a better job. Some 16.3% of the people consulted indicated that they could still change their vote before December 28.

A month after the first round on November 9, the panorama seemed to be even more clearly defined than the day after the elections. Nevertheless, too many important threads are still loose to predict how the future will unfold.

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

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