Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 315 | Octubre 2007



Surviving the Elections

Guatemalans survived the first round of the elections on September 9, whose Legislative Assembly and municipal government results merit analysis. They are now preparing for round two, which will determine their new President. There are important differences between Otto Perez Molina and Álvaro Colom: differences between a military option and a civilian one, and between a “hard hand” and a commitment to hope.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

The title of this article is deliberately provocative. It suggests that elections in Guatemala are like one of the socio-natural disasters that periodically lay waste to parts of the country: earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, landslides or droughts, all exacerbated by structurally deficient constructions, dismantled forest barriers, badly dredged rivers and sandbars, and, above all, insufficient social and political organization for disaster prevention.

Do elections democratize us?

The media now normally refer to the elections as a great “civic party.” For a country that has spent roughly 150 of the 186 years since its emancipation from Spanish colonialism under either caudilloregimes or military dictatorships, the sixth consecutive presidential elections in 22 years and only the tenth in its entire history should indeed be celebrated. They involve a certain expression of the popular will and a certain respect for that will, manifested in a voting process that is generally peaceful, increasingly accessible for people and usually with a non-fraudulent counting process.

However, it is my theory that up to now the holding of these elections, while complying with the rules of formal democracy, has not moved us closer to solving our political problems: to the consolidation of consistent ideological, programmatic and enduring political parties dialectically linked to different civil society organizations; the progressive establishment of a state whose institutions are basically reliable, bureaucratically agile and permanent, professionally competent and financially able to address the most pressing needs of the less fortunate majorities, gradually extricating itself from its commitments and indebtedness to the more fortunate minorities; the creation of relatively incorruptible bodies responsible for public security and fiscal and judicial practice and of security and justice policies that combine investigation and firmness, both based on an incorruptible respect for human rights, including the rehabilitation of prisoners; and, finally, the government’s entry into international alliances that would allow us to navigate the turbulent waters of globalization wisely and well.

This might seem a very high bar to set for democracy, but can a country really be democratized without adequate political party tools and with a weak state, a justice system attacked by corruption and impunity and a commercial and political dependence on the United States unbalanced by an active migratory policy or any serious struggle in the World Trade Organization?

Without progress in all of these areas, Guatemala’s elections will continue to devour all of democracy’s promises. We won’t know it when we stop living politically off democratic interests and, possessed by disenchantment with the results, start to devour democracy’s political capital. Already in these last elections, our enormous public security problem, with annual homicide and femicide rates higher than during the long years of internal armed conflict, provoked such disenchantment with the democratic process that an important part of the citizenry decided to vote for a former army general and his authoritarian and militaristic program. They did this without reflecting that one of the historical reasons for starting the democratization process 22 years ago was precisely the idea of being governed by civilian rulers and procedures that respect civic liberties.

Is democracy being consolidated?

Not all other analysts share my theory. Edelberto Torres-Rivas, a social scientist with a deserved reputation in Central America and one of the most paradigmatic representatives of Guatemala’s political Left, thinks otherwise. On August 26, two weeks before the elections, the newspaper El Periódico published an interview in which Torres-Rivas stated that “if everything is processed as in the last five elections, Guatemalan democracy will be consolidated, though it might upset the pessimists to hear it.” The rest of the interview significantly qualified the sweeping nature of this initial statement. He said, for example, that our democracy still “needs a lot of improvement, as we come from a heavy authoritarian heritage; [we need] to build a citizens’ democracy and also a party democracy.” His optimistic vision is mainly based on the development of generations that “did not live through the conflict or the military dictatorship,” which represent perhaps “sixty percent of Guatemalans.” In Torres-Rivas’s view, the main thing remaining is to resolve “today’s problems through more democracy, not less.” And as he’s not a blind optimist, he adds that “one offer out there proposes to impose order in the country through non-democratic methods, and that really scares me.”

Why did fewer people abstain?

As the result of the reforms to the Electoral Law, the September 9 elections were some two months before the date to which we had become accustomed. People voted for President, Vice President, 158 single-chamber Congress seats and 332 municipal mayors. With 99.5% of the official documents containing the tallies from the polling sites—known as vote reception boards—counted, 3,621,852 votes had been cast, 60.5% of the 5,990,029 registered voters.

The 2002 census showed 5,735,207 Guatemalans over the age of 18. Factoring in the country’s high annual population growth (an average 3.7% a year between the previous census in 1994 and this one), the proportion of the citizenry on the electoral roll is still notably high, unless deceased people have not been “shaved.” as they say here, from the electoral roll in recent years.

After the 1985 elections that heralded the democratization process 22 years ago, these elections had the lowest percentage of abstentions in the first round. This maintains the pattern of shrinking abstentions in the last three elections. Probably the most important factor in this drop is the decentralizing of the vote reception boards to one for every 500 people mandated by the Electoral and Political Parties Law voted through by the current Congress in 2004. For households in rural zones and marginalized urban settlements this brings the place where they vote notably closer. Another hypothesis for the drop in abstentions, which is hard to confirm, is that it responds to the increasing amounts being spent on propaganda and even gifts such as sheet metal roofing.

Colom and Pérez Molina out in front

These elections had the most dispersed results ever. The two candidates who pulled the most votes—out of the 15 who ran—were Alvaro Colom Caballeros with 28.2% and retired General Otto Pérez Molina with 23.5%. With only 4.7% of the votes separating them, the two parties that will face off in the second round on November 4 received less than 52% of the votes cast between them.

Colom is the candidate of the National Unity Party of Hope (UNE), founded by Colom himself in 2000; he defines it as social democratic with pretensions to join the Socialist International. His running mate is Rafael Espada, an internationally renowned cardiovascular surgeon who practices in the United States. Pérez Molina is running for the Patriotic Party (PP), which he founded in 2001 and defines as center-Right. His running mate is Ricardo Castillo Sinibaldi, a businessman from an industrial and banking family who has developed successful recreation parks for workers and founded the Solidarity Party. Both parties had gone into the 2003 elections promoting the Berger-Stein presidential ticket in a coalition with the Great National Alliance (GANA), from which their respective congressional benches later separated. UNE won in 18 of the country’s 22 departments, but came in third in the department of Guatemala, behind the PP and GANA. The PP won in 3 departments, including Guatemala. The Union of Nationalist Change (UCN) took the remaining department, Jalapa.

GANA’s presidential candidate, Alejandro Giammatei Falla, a physician and former penitentiary system director, pulled 17.2% and the choice of the Center for Social Action (CASA), physicist and mathematician Eduardo Suger Montano , attracted a surprising 7.5%. The votes for Suger Montano, who has authoritarian tendencies and is considered a fascist by some, may have been concentrated in young voters in the country’s capital who are inclined to choose an intelligent man, as he is both the director of a prestigious institute and the president of a university . Close behind him was Luis Rabbé, twice-losing candidate for the Guatemala municipal government and the first communications minister during the government of President Portillo (2000-2004). Running this time as the candidate of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), he received 7.3%, giving these three runners-up almost 32% of the vote.

The UCN’s Mario Estrada came in sixth with 3.2%, while Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum drew just 3.1% running on the Encounter for Guatemala (EG) party ticket, a notable failure for the first indigenous candidate to actually make it to polling day—two-times former mayor of Quetzaltenango Rigoberto Quemé Chay withdrew before the end of the campaign in 2003. The EG’s congressional candidates, headed by Nineth Montenegro, who was elected for the fourth consecutive time, received more votes than their famous presidential choice.

Engineer Fritz García-Gallont’s second attempt as candidate of the Unionist Party (PU) concluded with 2.9% and an eighth place finish while National Advance Party (PAN) candidate Oscar Castañeda finished with 2.6%. Between them, these two parties to which former President Alvaro Arzú has belonged pulled a combined 5.5% and both maintained their official party status as their share of the vote earned them a sprinkling of parliamentary representatives.

The Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG) ran in coalition with the Broad Left Movement (MAIZ), whose presidential candidate was Miguel Angel Sandoval, a former member of the URNG’s peace negotiation team. Its
2.1% of the vote allowed the URNG to hold onto its party status by winning one congressional seat on its national slate and another in the department of Huehuetenango, a carbon copy of its results in 2003.

The Democratic Union (UD) got 0.8% of the vote, and one congressional seat, which saved it from disappearing. Not so lucky was one of the few remaining historical parties, Guatemalan Christian Democracy (DCG), whose candidate Marco Vinicio Cerezo Blandón, son of former President Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo (1986-91), only got 0.5% and his father was not re-elected to parliament on the party’s national list. The DCG’s only success was a mayoral seat. Other parties to disappear were the New Nation Alliance (ANN), which ran former guerrilla commander “Pablo Monsanto” as its candidate, and Authentic Integral Development (DIA), both of which also received 0.5%.

Such dispersion was perhaps because none of the candidates with the most resources stood out for either charisma or a program geared to the huge needs of the country’s majorities.

A dispersed congress

The results, which are not yet official, were somewhat different in the vote for the 158 congressional seats. With 48 seats, UNE was again first, but far from the 80 needed to give it a simple majority much less the 105 required to pass special legislation such as constitutional changes. Current President Berger’s GANA came in second with 37 seats, the PP dropped to third with its 30 and the FRG took fourth place with 15, a drop from 29. Fifth place went to Arzú’s PU with 8 and sixth to Suger’s CASA with 5. Then came EG, the UCN and PAN with 4 each, while the URNG-MAIZ alliance took 2 and the UD 1.

A total of 67 congressional representatives (42.4%) were reelected, including former President and retired General Efraín Ríos Montt. The other 91 take their seats for the first time in the next session. Let’s hope these new faces will be an improvement over older corrupt and incompetent ones. Only 16 of the seats—just over 10%—will be held by women, thus maintaining the tradition of enormous numbers of men running Latin America’s state entities.

Two women were re-elected to Congress from two diametrically opposing parties: the FRG’s Zuri Ríos Sosa, daughter of Efraín Ríos Montt, and Nineth Montenegro of the EG, founder of the Mutual Support Group (GAM), which searches for people who were disappeared by the state, and an expert in overseeing the state’s budgetary execution from Congress. The department of Chiquimula did not re-elect Obdulio Chinchilla, who ran this time on the DIA ticket and is reputed to be be corrupt. In contrast, Otilia Lux de Cotí, a Quiché Mayan, was the only member of Rigoberta Menchú’s Winaq movement to win a seat in Congress. A native of Quetzaltenango, she has previously served on the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) and as minister of culture. Eleven representatives with Mayan surnames (7% of the total) were elected to Congress, 4 of them women.

These figures do not necessarily indicate that the voters punished representatives from the current Congress by not reelecting them, as a number of those elected for the first time were simply at the top of slates reordered by the parties themselves. Putting Ríos Montt in first place on the FRG’s national slate, however, clearly smacks of an attempt to keep him wrapped up in parliamentary immunity so that any attempt to have him tried for alleged crimes would involve first having to win a pre-trial in Congress and the Supreme Court. For all that, experts in jurisprudence insist that he will not remain immune from the charges for crimes against humanity filed against him both in the Spanish National Criminal Court and in Guatemala.

What hope of life for our parties?

To place these figures in a historical context and explain the statement that we no longer have ideological, programmatic, consistent, lasting political parties dialectically linked to different civil society organizations, the table below charts the trajectory of some of these parties, most of which were built up by a single caudillo-style leader, from their apogee through their progressive decline. Even those parties that did have an ideology, programs, consistency and strong links with some segment of civil society have either already disappeared or been at least provisionally laid to rest. The National Liberation Movement , standard bearer of the 1954 counterrevolution, disappeared years ago, as did the Institutional Democratic Party, a front for the army’s economic and political interests, and the Revolutionary Party, the last to try to keep alive the legacy of the 1944-54 democratic revolution, albeit in a watered-down form. And by the time those parties lost their way, the traditional Conservative and Liberal Parties of the 19th century, up to the 1944 revolution, were already long gone.

Referring to the democratization process in his above-mentioned interview, Edelberto Torres-Rivas states that “democracy is a very gradual learning curve for us. But there are already parties that are increasingly implanted and several will surely survive.” The figures in the table do not support this survival thesis.

The historical bi-party system—the blues of the conservative National Party and the reds of the Liberal Party—has survived in Honduras, accompanied by three other small parties that never threaten the hegemony of the traditional two. In Costa Rica the two survivors are the conservative Social Christian Party and the social democratic Liberal Party, with two recent additions—one further to the right and the other further to the left. In Nicaragua, the two major parties are the traditional Liberal one, which has survived under the name Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) to distinguish it from Somoza’s National Liberal party, and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), still around after 23 years in electoral politics, which has displaced the other traditional post-independence party, the Conservatives. Internal dissenters have split away from the main trunk of both the PLC and the FSLN to form new parties. Meanwhile, the Right in El Salvador created a party (ARENA), modernizing the oligarchic Conservatives and Liberals, that has competed in electoral politics for 25 years and won four consecutive elections. The last three victories have been against the socialist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN); the center-right PCN, which is still around after 46 years, originally representing the armed forces, and currently holds the balance in the Congress; and a number of small intermediary parties, including the centrist Christian Democracy and the 12-year-old center-left Democratic Convergence.

This doesn’t mean to suggest that the permanence of parties is an indisputably good thing. Many in Honduras would be all too pleased to see a rupture of the historical bi-party hegemony that produces immobility and corruption. And many in Nicaragua would be happy to see the back of the FSLN-PLC pacts, which seek power for power’s sake and recycle the caudillismo of former times. What it does imply, however, is that without enduring parties, people must virtually opt for the person of their choice, without caring much about programs.

A masquerade

In Central America as a whole, only in Guatemala have all the historical parties disappeared, and the oldest remaining ones, the PAN and FRG (22 and 18 years old respectively) are on a downward curve. The parties that have triumphed in the elections of the democratization stage have been very new, although none has been reelected. They start with strong representation in Congress, go on to win the presidency and then start dropping off until they threaten to disappear altogether or actually do so.

The PAN has been unable to maintain its strength following the deadly illness that affected López Rodas after he wrested the party away from Arzú. And what will happen to the PU if Arzú succumbs to cancer? What destiny awaits the FRG when the octogenarian Ríos Montt passes away? Guatemalan politics currently looks like a masquerade in which political parties just change faces and only the most creative ones, those with the greatest imaginative spark, survive.

What do not change are those behind the scenes who infuse the different disguises with their soul: emerging capital—much of it criminal—and the state security forces, in which the military is still mixed. They are accompanied these days by criminal capital (contraband, drug and all other illegal trafficking). Only on the local level, in the municipalities, do other interests closer to the people still call the shots.

A Congress condemned
to forging alliances

Congress gathered force during the period that is drawing to a close, with no party—perhaps the governing one less than any other—having a determining influence. Only half the Presidents during the democratization stage—Cerezo, Arzú and Portillo—enjoyed an absolute majority in Congress while the other half—Serrano, De León Carpio and Berger—were forced to negotiate anything they wanted or needed to get pushed through.

We’ve just elected another Congress with the same characteristic of dispersed benches, so the rule of holy and not-so-holy alliances will continue, along with the movement of turncoat representatives. The inability of the outgoing President and of whoever wins in November to pull a majority of congressional members over to their side gives Congress a singular power, although it can be used to legislate through bribery and blackmail, selling to the highest bidder rather than legislating democratically, and prioritiuzing the needs of the majorities among other national needs.

How did the municipal powers shape up?

The results of the municipal government elections have become increasingly important for two reasons. One is the country’s decentralization process—contained to some extent in the municipal autonomy laws and intensified through the laws on departmental and municipal Development Councils passed by the FRG majority during the Portillo presidency—and the other is the rise to power of indigenous groups in the municipalities where they are the majority.

Some of the more qualitative details of this election include Manuel Castillo Medrano’s election to the mayor’s office of the departmental capital of Jutiapa. “Manolito” is a former congressman who was expelled from the UNE on suspicion of being mixed up in drug trafficking and more recently was suspected of participating in the murders of the Salvadoran representatives to the Central American Parliament. While his election was challenged, his brother was reelected in San José Acatempa and a friend of his was elected in El Progreso (both municipalities are also in Jutiapa). So at this level, at least, the petition to voters from both the Guatemalan Bishops’ Conference and the Guatemala Forum not to consider politicians suspected of involvement in drug trafficking went unheeded. On the other hand, Pedro García Arredondo, former head of the sinister Judicial Police in the times of Lucas García (1978-82) who was prosecuted by the Spanish National Criminal Court under accusations made by the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation, failed in his bid for reelection as mayor of Santa Rosa.

With the results still more provisional than in other recounts due to a dozen challenges, the UNE holds the greatest number of municipal governments, winning 99 this time compared to 39 in 2003. As in Congress, it is followed by GANA with 77, exactly the same number it achieved in 2003, then by the PP with 39 and the PU with 22 (compared to 10 in 2003).

And this is where the most unbalancing factor of all comes into play: the mayor’s office of Guatemala City was won for the third time and the second consecutive time by former President Alvaro Arzú. He increased his share of the capital city’s voters from 37% to 55% with 220,325 votes, followed by GANA’s Roberto González—the not very successful manager of post-Hurricane Stan reconstruction—with 118,364 votes.

The FRG won 21 mayoral offices, a huge drop from the 118 it won in 2003, while the PAN took 12, the UCN 10 and URNG-MAIZ 6 (2 down from 2003). The remaining parties won between 4 and 1 for a total of 14. Among this last group, the DCG took just one mayor’s office, marking the end of the road for a party that was once very strong on the municipal level and still won 7 mayors’ offices in 2003, but has now lost its party status.

These provisional results cover 300 mayors’ offices, with 32 still to be announced at the time of writing. Only 8 women (2.4%) will sit behind a mayor’s desk, out of 106 who ran.

As for the departmental capitals, PU took 1 (Guatemala), URNG-MAIZ 1 (Sololá), GANA 2 (Quetzaltenango and San Marcos), UNE 3 (Antigua, Retalhuleu and Flores), FRG 3 (Cobán, Quiché and Totonicapán), UCN 3 (Jalapa, Chiquimula and Puerto Barrios) and PP 4 (Escuintla, Salamá, Guastatoya and Zacapa), while a number of independent civic committees took a total of 5 (Jutiapa, Cuilapa, Chimaltenango, Huehuetenango and Mazatenango).

With respect to the most heavily populated municipalities, PU won 3 (Guatemala, Villanueva and San Juan Chamelco), FRG 2 (Cobán and San Pedro Carchá), PP 2 (Mixco and Escuintla), GANA 2 (Quetzaltenango and San Marcos) and a civic committee 1 (Huehuetenango). And finally, according to data from the Guatemalan Association of Mayors and Indigenous Authorities, around 129 indigenous citizens won a municipal mayor’s office, almost 39% of the total of 332. But only one candidate from the EG, the party that ran Rigoberta Menchú as its presidential candidate, took a municipal government (San Cristóbal Cucho in the department of San Marcos).

Why did Rigoberta run?

Rigoberta Menchú and her running mate, coffee magnate Fernando Montenegro, only pulled 101,316 votes and ended up in seventh place. In fact, the EG won more votes for Congress than for its presidential ticket. What happened to this candidacy, which the polls ranked fourth in mid-2007 with almost 7% of voters’ intentions and Vox Latina showed polling even higher as late as August?

Two years before the elections, we heard Rigoberto explain with aplomb that there was no prospect of indigenous people trying to run for President in 2007 because many intermediary cadres still needed to be formed in order to put together a government team. Precisely for this reason, she placed great hope in the Maya University, which has still not taken off. We even heard her say that 2012—the year the winning candidate in the 2011 elections will take office—would perhaps be an auspicious year because it marks the end of a katun, or period of history, in the Mayan calendar.

So why did the same Rigoberta change her mind just a year and a half later, holding conversations that led her to ally her incipient political movement, Winaq (which means “people” or “persons” in Quiché), with Nineth Montenegro and be proclaimed the EG’s presidential candidate?

Rigoberta has not revealed the motives behind that decision. Maybe she saw her candidacy as an observation balloon from which to probe the reach of her political force with a view to the 2011 elections or others further in the future. Maybe Evo Morales’ 2006 triumph made her reassess the following that an indigenous candidacy might generate among Guatemala’s indigenous voters. Or maybe she just miscalculated Winaq’s mobilizing capacity and her own ability to attract financial resources. Only one of her propaganda billboards was seen on a trip along the Pan-American Highway from Guatemala City to the departments of Quetzaltenango and Totonicapán, which provides a good indicator of the scant resources with which the EG and she competed.

Was racism a factor?

Maybe Rigoberta thought that her enormous recognition among the Guatemalan population and the mainly excellent opinion of her in the opinion polls in preceding years would automatically translate into political capital. Perhaps she paid a price for having maintained a greater presence in global indigenous causes than in those of her own country in general and the “profound” Guatemala in particular. The Mayan population’s vote has dispersed among various political parties, perhaps with a certain preference for the UNE, particularly in most of the western highlands. Could her rejection of the URNG-MAIZ candidacy when she had previously been an activist in one of ithe URNG’s organizations have tainted her with an image of political instability or even ideological Machiavellianism?

And maybe Guatemalan racism and machismo weighed too heavily against her, at least in certain crucial areas of the country. Otherwise, it’s hard to explain how she failed to pull more than 12,000 votes in the capital, the most educationally developed place in the country. But as white South African novelist Bryce Courtenay has written, “racism does not diminish with brains. It’s a disease, a sickness, madness. It may incubate in ignorance, but it doesn’t necessarily disappear with the gaining of wisdom.”

A phrase by Fernando Montenegro quoted by Torres-Rivas says more than many reflections on racism: “I feel fine. The only bad thing is that my friends aren’t talking to me any more.” Obviously, it’s not racism that led indigenous men and women from the capital and the country’s interior to vote for other options, although the patriarchal Mayan indigenous culture could have had an influence.

I still have the impression that no matter how probable the failure of her political project is for the moment, Rigoberta Menchú launched a serious challenge to the Guatemalan political system, as Edelberto Torres-Rivas pointed out, because she is an indigenous woman from a poor rural background. But this doesn’t prevent us from recognizing that for now Guatemalans with Mayan roots are participating in Guatemalan politics from the fragile and kaleidoscopic shell of political parties, from which they have achieved victory in a lot of municipal governments, a few congressional representatives, a few ministers or vice ministers, two or three vice presidential candidacies (in the FDNG and the URNG) and, except for Rigoberta, no candidacies for the presidency.

Rigoberta’s challenge could inadvertently become divisive competition, if more and more parties feel inclined to include indigenous candidates with either the intention or at least the effect of dividing the indigenous vote.

The Left: Small or dwarfed?

In the end, Rigoberta Menchú shared a singular defeat in the presidential elections with the Guatemalan Left. Pablo Monsanto—whose ANN party disappeared from the political party map—reportedly said that the Left is never defeated, it only loses battles. Miguel Angel Sandoval declared that it was a success to have put before public opinion a “leftist discourse and agenda that was fading away” and that “our congressional seats and mayors’ offices are the result of dignity.” He concluded that the results had been good, given the limited resources with which they had competed.

Torres-Rivas thinks that Sandoval is the one who, in the words of his interviewer, “has given the most serious explanation of the ideological contradiction that persists in Guatemalan society, which the political parties fail to grasp.” In this regard, only Sandoval proposed an agrarian reform and serious tax reforms.

In any case, it seems important for the Guatemalan Left to enter into a period of profound reflection devoid of concessions and ask itself why the leftwing options in the other two Central American countries that had an internal conflict—El Salvador and Nicaragua—are still valid and viable, despite not having implemented an essential generational changing of the guard, while the Guatemalan Left not only suffers schisms, as in the neighboring countries, but is also plunging into a whirlwind of dwarfism.

Re-founding the Left?

In order for its smallness not to equal irrelevance, wouldn’t the Guatemalan Left have to use its congressional seats to push forcefully for compliance with the Peace Accords as state policy? Some analysts go even further, arguing that the URNG would do better to dissolve itself, like salt in water, so that its valuable members can work in social movements without being surrounded by that party shell that isolates and doesn’t permit irradiation.

Isn’t the Guatemalan Left the political group that most needs to be re-founded? Renew or die, as the old slogan put it. Norberto Bobbio has said that the Left is distinguished from the Right by its concern for equality, or seen from the other side by the pain that inequality causes it.

Guatemala, together with Brazil and South Africa, is the world’s most inequitably unequal country. But why would Guatemalans want a Left if those who say they’re leftwing today, unlike their predecessors, don’t accompany people afflicted by inequality in their daily life and places of suffering, and many of their leaders only cultivate their politics in bureaucratic offices or social salons?

The challenges for both
candidates are enormous

The presidency and vice presidency will be determined in the second round on November 4, and if there’s no great change from previous elections the abstention rates will be pretty high, unless having the Vote Reception Boards nearer people’s homes produces some kind of change this time around.

The two candidates have enormous challenges: Colom needs to makes inroads in the capital city, where his UNE party came in fourth, and Pérez Molina needs to do the same in the country’s interior, particularly the west and the north. Both visited Mayor Arzú and President Berger and both are trying to ingratiate themselves with as many of the mayors that didn’t vote for them as possible. Both are also courting the two men that came in immediately behind them: Giammatei and Suger. Suger has asked the two contenders for their government programs so he can study them before announcing whom, if either, he will endorse. GANA, on the other hand, has decided not to officially support either contender, exluding Giammatei from that decision.

Giammatei appears to have been left waiting at the altar and, having declared that he didn’t favor a return to the country’s military past, now appears to be in negotiations with the PP, of which he was a member and leader in 2002. He met with Otto Pérez Molina during the week of September 16-23. GANA’s decision doesn’t mean that its outgoing or incoming elected representatives to Congress won’t take sides in a more or less public form, although it’s doubtful that the population that voted for one or another of the non-winning parties, the candidates for representative on an official party slate or winning mayor will necessarily vote according to the recommendations of their first round choice like a check to be cashed on voting day.

What this party horsed-trading once again indicates is something we’ve already stated: Guatemala’s political parties are personalist and their programs aren’t worth the price of the advisers that draw them up or the paper they’re printed on. Other forces are pulling the strings of the puppet show; other faces are behind the masks at the masquerade.

The “iron hand” of Pérez Molina

There’s an important difference between the two contenders. One is a retired military officer complete with military spirit and character who has chosen the significant campaign slogan “iron hand” to project the idea that citizens’ security can only be obtained with military discipline and strength. While simplistic, this proposal is also tempting and perhaps even seductive. But it is above all a return to the past.

This doesn’t mean that a military officer can’t be democratic. They have been in other countries and were in Guatemala during the decade that Colonel Arbenz ruled. Perhaps the most interesting examples were General Cárdenas in Mexico (1934-40), General Eisenhower in the United States (1952-60, who was admittedly democratic only within the US) and General De Gaulle in France (1958-68). But given the terrible military past that still weighs heavily on us in Guatemala, the burden of proving that a military officer can be democratic is firmly on retired General Otto Pérez Molina’s shoulders. Despite being one of the forces that blocked Serrano’s attempted coup in 1993 and one of the negotiators in the last stage of the peace process, he was also a military commander in Nebaj (Quiché) at the beginning of the eighties, as he himself mentioned in a column titled “Memories” in the newspaper Prensa Libre. That area was subjected to army massacres and scorched earth tactics. But as Edelberto Torres-Rivas has reminded us, the great problem is that 60% of this country’s current citizenry is too young to remember the military dictatorship or the internal armed conflict.

And with this context forgotten or unknown, neither the report of the Historical Clarification Commission nor the Peace Accords and their Framework Law have been included in the country’s primary and secondary school curriculum. Otto Pérez Molina should be asked if he wants to distance himself from the ARMY’S fully documented scorched earth tactics and its massacres to win the internal armed conflict in the eighties and if he will beg the forgiveness of the victims for the part he played in that strategy.

Colom: “Your hope”

Colom’s slogan—”Your hope is my commitment”—is vague and doesn’t encapsulate a felt need of the population the same way Pérez Molina’s “iron hand” does with people’s need for security. And while neither Colom nor his running mate is a military man or a militarist, there are military men in the UNE ranks. One of them, retired General Sergio Camargo, was not reelected to Congress but has been talked of as a possible minister of government. We’ve already mentioned at least one person suspected of involvement in drug trafficking—Manuel Castillo—who was an UNE representative until expelled from the party. Other rumored links with organized crime or other hidden powers are also circulating around certain bloody events that resulted in the death of several UNE members, including one legislator, and an intimidating attack against its campaign strategist.

The weakness Colom is accused of wouldn’t be good for a President, but it would perhaps be better than unscrupulous strength. The last thing we need in this democratically young and imperfect country is a return to authoritarian, non-democratic methods. That’s why the citizenry has a real option for surviving these elections and continuing to build from below a society more capable of demanding and representatively overseeing the tasks of government.

And the country’s real problems?

It’s a genuine disgrace that neither of the two contenders has dared to include in his programs any of Guatemala’s biggest problems. The first of these is the fiscal pact needed to give the state the ability to respond with adequate social spending to the enormous social debt in health, education and housing and stop the state’s chronic indebtedness to domestic banks that are fed by traditional, emerging and criminal capital and must thus respond to their interests. The second is the application of the rest of the Peace Accords, starting with the reform of property, technology and credit, and the diversification and increased productivity of agrarian production. The third is the unpostponable Cadastre Law and return to the state of the vast amounts of ill-gotten lands appropriated during the military governments. Fourth is Guatemala’s conversion into a truly civilian state and the professionalization and purging of the security and penitentiary forces, together with a fair pay rise for employees in those institutions. And fifth are the handful of constitutional reforms needed to comply with the Peace Accords and perhaps establish a new republic of a multicultural and intercultural nature that transcends racism and confronts patriarchal machismo through legislation and public policies that promote gender equality.

The cry of the most fanatical Right that Guatemalans already rejected those reforms in a referendum cannot be accepted when only 18% of the population voted on that occasion in an atmosphere thick with racist fear fanned above all by rightwing and religious fundamentalist politicians.

More pessimistic analyses

I don’t want to end without clearly recognizing that other analyses highlight the vision of rural people or those from Guatemala’s marginalized urban settlements who view politics as nothing more than a business: “I’ll give you my vote if you give me something in return.” And so the elections become one of the pillars of corruption. Such analyses pessimistically—or realistically—stress the current impossibility of large or radical changes. One thing is to list such changes and fight for them and quite another is to have the right environment and historical opportunity for them to exist in today’s world. These analysts argue that people can sense this impossibility and that it explains why electoral democracy is turning into a personal benefit game, a chance for a job or something else, as if the purse strings are suddenly opened every four years to share out money.

Who will watch the watchdogs?

The political party leaders are faced with the task of re-founding their respective parties both programmatically and ideologically, forging them into tools that can be used to build a less authoritarian, less caudillo-based, less personalist, less sexist and less racist Guatemala. That won’t be possible until we have many social movements and organizations that comprise a civil society interested in politics and oriented to public affairs, overcoming the inertia of privateness and the philosophy of every man for himself. Until we have many social groups providing solidarity from very different interests there will be nobody to keep an eye on the watchdogs, and state officials will continue doing as they please out there in no man’s land.

Politics and civil society are directly proportional. Without an active and participatory citizenry organized into civil society there can be no responsible politics in Guatemala or any other country.

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

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