Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 313 | Agosto 2007



An Uncertain and Violent Electoral Process

The campaign for the September 9 elections has been the most violent in Guatemalan history; the economic and social crisis is very serious and there are signs that organized crime permeates politics and that the country is losing its ability to be governed. Guatemala’s very viability is at stake.

Myrna Mack Foundation

These are the sixth elections since Guatemala’s current Constitution was promulgated and the democracy-building process officially launched in 1985, after several decades of military rule. These new elections are taking place in the least propitious conditions since that democratic opening, with mounting violence, an economic crisis and institutional burn-out. The state is marked by signs of a loss of governability and the candidates, far from auguring better prospects with a new government, offer no real possibilities of pulling the nation out of the prevailing situation.

Verbal attacks instead of real debates

Any observer today can see the profound weakness of the institutional apparatus; intense violence and criminality, which is only worsening as voting day approaches; and widespread impunity that reveals how inoperative the justice and security systems are. The electoral scene itself is riddled with virulent attacks, particularly among front-running candidates Álvaro Colom Caballeros (currently polling 21%), retired General Otto Pérez Molina (14%) and Alejandro Giammattei Falla (8%). Dr. Suger and Rigoberta Menchú are trailing with no more than 2.5% each, leaving over half of the electorate either undecided or indifferent only two months before the elections.

The most worrisome aspect is not just that the electoral process is poisoned by these attacks. Far more serious is they have eliminated the possibility of any debates on programmatic issues and relegated the analysis of negotiations over eventual alliances or understandings among political parties, even though this will have a major impact on how the state is run in the near and medium future.

Murders with an electoral flavor?

It’s also outrageous that uncontrolled problems such as the murders of urban transport drivers and their social, political and emotional consequences are being used as electoral ammunition. Among the consequences are the paralysis of the urban transport service, social protests and a widespread environment of fear that’s destroying people’s peace of mind. The problem is continuing to grow and people are continuing to die while Colom’s National Unity of Hope (UNE) and Pérez Molina’s Patriot Party (PP) attribute the intellectual and material authorship of the murders to each other and authorities spend their time blaming some and exonerating others, or justifying their own inefficiency.

The violence against the drivers grew rapidly between May and June, which suggested that the phenomenon could have been politically incited. Some think the murders were deliberately triggered to increase the number of violent acts, while others hypothesize that they were designed to increase perceptions of such acts to stir up debate about how to deal with violent crime. The Vice President and other government officials discarded the idea that the events had any political motive. The whole thing would have fizzled out had some UNE legislators not directly accused the PP of creating the violence to attract voters to its hard line on crime. The PP denied the accusations and threatened to sue the UNE members. The most serious aspect of this inter-party squabble was the public suggestion that there might actually be structures that kill people just to “spice up” the election campaign.

The country’s viability is at stake

The most worrying institutional feature is the technical and political fragility of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). While this directly concerns the September 9 general elections and the possible run-off round in November, it is also yet another element in the pattern of weakness in the public institutions. It distorts the perception of the TSE’s authority and could create a climate that only increases the distrust, fear and dirty campaigns. All this could lead to challenges regarding the reliability and transparency of the voting process.

Yet another feature is the real deterioration of the political party system, as revealed by the party’s purely electoral behavior, absence of programmatic content and inclination to use violence and dirty campaigns against their adversaries. The parties are excessively exposed to organized crime, especially drug trafficking, which has penetrated through a mixture of economic and political strength and violence. There is already open discussion of the inroads this emerging criminal power is making in the parties, and many of their operators are almost certainly candidates for public posts, or else advisers, financiers or even leaders at various levels.

The exacerbation of these political, economic and social problems means that the country is increasingly losing its ability to govern itself, which has led to an uncontrollable spiral of violence, criminality, confrontation, impunity and economic precariousness. This situation is hard to turn around because the national actors have no political desire to engage in genuine dialogue and negotiations that could establish a path toward peace, democracy-building and strengthening the rule of law.

These elements are turning this electoral campaign into a sui generis process in which a change of the country’s political and administrative leadership and quotas of power are not the only things at stake. The magnitude of Guatemala’s crisis is putting its very political, social and juridical viability at risk.

A newly fragile electoral tribunal

Unlike in previous electoral processes, the TSE has shown signs of technical, political and juridical fragility this time that spark serious doubts about its capacity to pull off the elections without major problems. These features have been accentuated in the past few years by intense political pressures and legal maneuvers that have excessively weakened its ability to function.

The make-up of the current tribunal was determined by a selection and appointment process rife with pressures from power groups seeking to co-opt the institution, which quickly led to tensions among its magistrates. This has created a complex internal dynamic that has largely obstructed the internal reform and modernization processes, blocked consensus and fueled the citizenry’s perception that the TSE is slow, cumbersome and relatively inoperative. In fact, many of the criticisms from different national sectors stem from a lack of clarity about the tribunal’s work between elections, since it only takes on any notoriety when the elections roll around.

In juridical terms, no one believes that the 2004 and 2006 reforms of the Electoral and Political Parties Law—known as LEPP—did anything to strengthen the TSE’s oversight and standard-setting role in electoral affairs. Unfortunately, the debates around the reforms didn’t foster the necessary changes to legal, criminal and penal processing aspects to provide greater control and supervision of either the electoral process or the political parties’ activities, particularly their propaganda campaigns and financing. The norms were left without having established punishable crimes for parties that disobey the LEPP or fail to respect the general legal framework. This leaves the political parties and power groups that get involved in the process plenty of room for arbitrary acts.

The rules of the electoral game can easily be dodged without the TSE being able to do anything more than make political declarations that have no effect whatever. The reforms thus left the institution as an administrator and qualified observer of the electoral process, but with no legal force to guarantee that it will develop adequately or that the laws will be fully respected.

This lack of clout was clearly visible when the TSE proved unable to halt the early kick-off of the electoral campaign. The TSE magistrates expressed concern and urged the parties to respect the norms after most of them launched intense political campaigns in clear contravention of the calendar established in the LEPP. But there were no sanctions of any kind. In addition, it was observed with concern that different entities refuted some of the administrative and legal regulations adopted by the TSE in recent months, specifically those issued following approval of the LEPP reforms, to the extreme that the TSE has had to backtrack on its decisions.

The TSE will need 120,000 people

The TSE’s technical weakness and uncertainty about its capacity to carry out the electoral process successfully has largely to do with the modalities introduced by the two sets of LEPP reforms. They oblige the tribunal to considerably increase its technical, human and financial resources to cover the event and assure the security and fidelity of the final data.

The decentralization of the voting centers—the new criterion is to set up a voting table anywhere there are at least 500 registered voters—doubles or triples the figures of previous elections in some respects, making implementing and controlling the electoral process a real organizational and administrative challenge. The TSE says it will need 120,000 people to staff nearly double the number of tables used in 2003. This far exceeds the Tribunal’s installed capacity and implies a monumental training effort. The TSE has made agreements with some institutions to help train the personnel involved in the elections, particularly Guatemala’s San Carlos University, but there are serious doubts about the quality of the service that will be provided in the voting centers given how little time is allotted for training. This will be a determining factor, because the actions of the table directors are subject to legal dispositions and will invariably be monitored by the political parties. Anomalies could lead to so many judicial suits that they put the electoral event at risk.

A challenge for the
political parties and for security

Although the TSE is burdened with bringing all the new personnel on board, training them and sending them around the country, as well as providing the technical and material resources, the decentralization also poses a challenge to the political parties, which will require a good number of collaborators if they want to monitor all 14-16,000 voting tables. Obviously only the parties with the largest membership will be able to follow the electoral process closely. Groupings that have made it onto the ballot with only the minimum membership requisites established in the LEPP won’t be able to cover many of the tables even in urban zones, much less the outlying rural areas.

Another challenge resulting from the decentralization is linked to security, given the size of the electoral event. The security forces will have to preserve public order and protect the voters and people directly involved with tasks corresponding to the TSE and the political parties, but the Ministry of Government and the Civil National Police (PNC) don’t appear to have the conditions or capacity to assume this commitment alone. They have a notable lack of human, technical and logistical resources to cover all voting centers plus all the communication channels around the country and be present at those localities defined as electoral circumscriptions. And they certainly don’t have the capacity to do so without affecting their routine security tasks. This will make it necessary to turn once again to the army, as in previous elections, to preserve a relatively calm environment for voters as far as possible.

The TSE will have to coordinate directly with the defense and government ministries and design joint actions with other institutions to guarantee the smooth development of the process. This means ensuring adequate access to the outlying communities that will have voting centers for the first time, making major improvements to the road network and electricity service, both so the population can get to the center to vote and to avoid incidents that call the elections into question. It also means defining specific contingency plans for any possible climatic disturbances, minimizing the risks and guaranteeing security during the electoral event.

Added to all this is the traditionally delicate issue of ensuring an accurate voter list. Huge efforts are required to purge the names of people who have died, see to it that non-citizens are not registered and ensure that all eligible Guatemalans can vote without complications stemming from errors or the absence of their name from the official lists.

Traditional power
vs. emerging power

One characteristic of recent elections has been an intense battle between the traditional power groups and the emerging ones, with each seeking to consolidate its spheres and positions of influence to make the state apparatus work on behalf of its own interests. In the past decade, the influential positions of power of the country’s traditional big capitalists have been attacked by emerging power groups that are both economically capable and politically skilled. These new groups have been shoving aside those that historically enjoyed privileged positions within the state apparatus, cutting away at their significant quotas of influence and dominion. They acquired so much influence during the Alfonso Portillo government that they put the traditional economic power at a disadvantage for the first time ever.

One of the most effective channels for both groups is the political parties. Every election time, the battle between the groups moves to the party structures, where it gets expressed in the make-up of the committees and the designation of candidates for elected posts. The emerging power has also sought to extend its influence in the selection of candidates for other relevant posts, especially within the justice system. Its accumulation of important quotas of participation could determine the outcome of its fight to gain dominion of the state apparatus.

Organized crime in the parties and drug trafficking in the communities

Organized crime has been a constant in past elections. This has borne such fruit in the last decade that our institutions, particularly in the areas of security and justice, are now weakened, deeply penetrated by criminal structures, inoperative and discredited. Their lower and middle level structures have been co-opted by people whose practices pervert the institutions’ mission and create systemic impunity and corruption. All this favors the development, expansion and consolidation of these ills because they are guaranteed immunity from criminal prosecution.

The criminal structures have introduced a new variant with more force and intensity this time around by notably shifting toward the community sphere, which is where their practices find the kind of social legitimacy required for their continuation. Local power is being aggressively co-opted by groups linked to drug trafficking and networks of corruption, especially involving contraband, arms traffic and the kidnapping of children for illegal adoptions or organ trafficking.

Organized crime has found fertile terrain in many communities, whether through the direct participation of people seeking better incomes, the use of violence in cases where the community puts up resistance, setting up protection rackets to protect families and communities from the youth gangs and common criminals, or trading opportunities for diversion and recreation for people’s silence and cover-up. The organized crime and drug trafficking bosses often finance sports and cultural activities, saints’ days and other festivities in the communities where they operate, assuring social sympathies.

What’s more, they effectively “cleanse” local areas of common criminals or youth gangs that sow fear and disrupt the peace; they provide the same service in barrios where youth gangs have cropped up. The leaders of these criminal structures have gained local notoriety, power and influence, characteristics that largely define the profile of many candidates for public office. That makes the local governing structures—known as municipal corporations—ever more attractive to these murky figures.

The most violent electoral process

The leaders and agents of these criminal groups use traditional means to ensure their electoral participation. They finance political campaigns, buy votes at the grassroots level and use gifts or offers of future benefits to mobilize society around the political party groupings or civic committees of their choice, which they provide with human, material and logistical resources. They are also prepared to use violence to achieve their aims, eliminating candidates and leaders who get in their way. Exploiting their access to resources and impunity, they use armed groups to plan and implement these violent operations, which invariably go unpunished. The current electoral race shows this clearly. As of the official campaign kick-off on May 2, 2007, the OAS Observer Mission revealed that 43 political party activists or sympathizers had already been killed compared to 29 during the entire 2003 campaign, an increase of over 50%.

There are also other kinds of aggression that are neither denounced nor recorded: the intimidation of party members and sympathizers, verbal and physical violence, and damage to installations and to propaganda. This electoral campaign is already shaping up as the most violent in the country’s political history.

Loss of the ability to govern

Regardless of which party wins the presidential sash or how the political forces line up in the Congress and municipal governments, Guatemala will continue losing the capacity to govern itself. This trend, accentuated in recent years by political confrontation, social conflict, economic precariousness, violence and criminality, will largely condition the actions of the new authorities and undoubtedly mark their success or failure.

At least that was what was demonstrated during the current administration, which from the outset has had to cope with the increasing symptoms of burn-out in the country’s ability to govern itself competently and respect the human rights and values of democracy-building. This set up a complex dynamic in which any strategic focus took a back seat to reactive, often erratic behavior that left authorities doing little other than putting out the fires of innumerable conflictive events. It was easy to gradually lose governability as no progress was being made in resolving the population’s most pressing problems, social conflicts weren’t being deactivated and there were no signs of an environment conducive to dialogue and consensus among the different national elites.

This could hit a level that is extremely risky for the country’s stability if the elites and the real power bloc maintain a passive, indifferent and indolent attitude, allowing the problem to intensify and continuing to reject the key decisions required to change to a different course. Likewise, if the different civil society organizations don’t acquire the ability to make grassroots urban and rural alliances or provide a popular sensitivity to the struggles they are committed to and laud.

In this difficult context, the parties that dominate the political stage in the next four years will be both duty-bound and forced to start reversing this adverse trend affecting the ability to govern and hence electoral democracy and the attempt to open wider and deeper channels of participatory democracy within the rule of law. If this doesn’t happen, the deterioration will continue pushing the country into an ever worse crisis.

How can we keep
the crisis from scalating?

If anything is to be achieved, we must channel our efforts:
* At the executive level, institutional behavior must be encouraged that deals with the population’s most pressing problems, reduces the levels of conflict and creates arenas for a dialogue with diverse national sectors, effectively identifying viable solutions and building consensus around them.

* In the Congress, activities must be developed that not only turn it into a center of political debate about national affairs, but also help surmount the crisis by issuing norms to make public administration more efficient, particularly with respect to security and justice. Efforts must also be made to exercise the political controls corresponding to the legislative branch as a way to ensure appropriate state conduct, and regulations must be issued that promote institutional strengthening, democratic consolidation and the full exercise of the citizenry’s fundamental rights. This can only be done by listening honestly to the voices of reality in the grassroots majorities and humbly accepting that power resides not only in the state’s policy-making bodies but also in the efficient and effective organization of civil society in all its heterogeneity, just as the state itself is heterogeneous.

* In the municipal arena, the political forces can play a determining role by buttressing the whole institutional structure, particularly the Community and Municipal Development Councils, promoting from that base initiatives to improve the population’s living conditions, strengthen democratic practices and construct harmonious social coexistence.

* The political parties will have to make greater efforts to democratize, modernize and act transparently. At the same time, they must repel with incorruptible honesty the penetration of criminal groups into their structures and design an agenda that deals with national interests and involves ongoing work, not only when elections roll around. Only in this way can the system of political representation be strengthened and the various party tendencies become real and sustainable political options.

Does it even matter
who wins the elections?

Why did we mention the front-running presidential candidates only at the start of this analysis? Realistically speaking, it probably matters very little who we vote for on September 9 or even in November if a run-off is required.

The structural obstacles to good government are so enormous among both civil society organizations and political organizations aspiring to state power that little can be expected from the Guatemalan state until everyone contaminated by organized crime—be it drug trafficking or any other kind of trafficking to obtain capital by criminal means—has been purged. The reforms have to include changing the Constitution to make the various judicial branch entities genuinely autonomous of the executive and legislative branches. The country’s continued demilitarization must also be included, as must the constitutional recognition of Guatemala as a multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic state—and perhaps in a later stage an authentically federal or multinational one.

Without all this…

To build democracy, the education, health, and public safety budgets must be seriously raised so the country can start paying its social debt. And finally, it will be impossible to govern honestly, competently, effectively and efficiently if the state can’t collect the taxes needed to pay the education, health and security institutions and provide decent and fair salaries to teachers and professors; doctors, paramedics, nurses and nurses’ aides; district attorneys; and customs, migration, police and penitentiary guards, to prevent those employees from being co-opted or bribed by the unlawful holders of criminal capital.

Without a financially strong state, there is no ability to govern competently and honestly. But without greater tax collection relative to the gross domestic product, the state cannot be financially strong; nor can it be independent of the major economic powers, be they traditional or emerging, legal or illegal. After all, they are the true power behind the state right now; a state within a state.

Without all this, it will amount to about the same whether Colom or Giammattei or Pérez Molina sits behind the presidential desk, although the latter has the added disadvantage of his military roots. There is also the aggravating factor that voters are forced to choose from party slates for congressional seats rather than vote for individuals.

And now the good news

On August 1 we received the good news that Guatemala’s Congress voted to pass a bill the nation urgently needed creating an Investigative Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The Myrna Mack Foundation strongly defended this bill, which was directly conceived to take on organized crime and the hidden powers. It appears that the plenary was shamed into approving this legislation after it had been rejected outright in committee due to opposition from Ríos Montt’s Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) and Alvaro Arzú’s Unionist Party.

Now that it is law, what remains is the drafting and approval of a regulatory law to give it practical effect. The Constitutionality Court must also quickly resolve the appeals by those who voted against it or were absent from the floor at the time. It will hopefully follow its previous ruling that the CICIG isn’t anti-constitutional as the Guatemalan state is asking the United Nations for help to deal with these powers without losing its own sovereignty as a result.

The second piece of encouraging news is that the Public Ministry is beginning to untangle the threads leading to the intellectual authors of February’s extra-official executions of both the Salvadoran members of the Central American Parliament and the police officers who committed the act. A strong suspect is Guatemalan legislator Manuel Castillo, whose apparent drug-trafficking ties led Colom’s UNE party to expel him last year and the US Embassy to withdraw his visa. Suspicions are also being raised against the Salvadoran legislators themselves and other individuals who communicated with both Castillo and the police officers from El Salvador, using the pseudonyms “Montaña 3” and “Montaña 1,” suggesting they are probably drug barons.

The Myrna Mack Foundation is a human rights research and advocacy organization. This article was written in collaboration with Juan Hernández Pico, sj, envío correspondent in Guatemala.

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