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  Number 363 | Octubre 2011
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Guatemala

Going into the second round touching bottom

When a society touches bottom, it yearns to breathe fresh air again. Formal democracy in Guatemala has hit bottom. Is there anyone to vote for in the second round? We need a coalition that can transform today’s democracy, one that can make it participatory, with innovative programming, transforming the economic, political, cultural and experiential system in which we are drowning.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

The polls got the September 11 election results wrong. Not only did retired General Otto Pérez Molina not win on the first round, as had seemed likely from the steadily increasing voter preferences in his favor; the actual vote for him dropped from well over 40% in the final poll to just over 36%, with approximately 1.6 million votes.

His closest competitor, lawyer Manuel Baldizón from the Renovated Democratic Freedom Party (LIDER), won about 23%, with slightly over a million votes. Baldizón had also risen in the polls during the course of the campaign, particularly after the incumbent President’s wife, Sandra Torres, was denied registration as the governing party candidate.

Were the polls really wrong?

Some people talked about the polls making a mistake. On September 18, the Guatemalan daily El Periódico published an interesting analysis claiming that the polls weren’t mistaken but that the political situation changed fundamentally when Torres was excluded from registering. Moreover, while she was still campaigning, the most publicized poll, commissioned and conducted by the Prensa Libre business group’s polling division, probably used a sample with an urban bias, taken from the capital and its adjacent areas: Guatemala City with Mixco and Villanueva. Otto Pérez Molina won this sector of the population in the 2007 presidential elections, although he finally lost because his opponent, Álvaro Colom, won almost all the rest of the very rural part of the country.

Pérez Molina wasn’t as clearly ahead of Torres in the polls by CID Gallup, Vox Latina, Borge y Asociados, etc. Was it because their polls covered more of the country, including the rural areas? The question remains unanswered.

The strongman candidate, Pérez Molina was trained in the military. A very important sector of private enterprise, the Prensa Libre Group, supported his candidacy.

Against Sandra Torres

To end up winning in the real world, it’s vitally important in any business or military strategy to publish that “our” company or “our” troops are winning the market or the war .

For most of President Álvaro Colom’s term in office, Prensa Libre’s editorial line opposed Sandra Torres; its opposition became more visceral as it became more likely that the First Lady was looking to run for President herself.

The Prensa Libre Group relies on three central, powerful creators of public opinion that act like nodes in a network : its own newspaper Prensa Libre; Nuestro Diario, Guatemala’s most widely read newspaper; and the Guatevisión television channel. Their names create a powerful image of “truth”: Free, Our and Guatemala. If Prensa Libre is the free press, are the other media not free? Does “our daily” (Nuestro Diario) mean the other dailies are disassociated from the public? And if Guatevisión is Guatemala’s vision, where does the vision of the other channels come from? The Prensa Libre business group also owns the opinion poll company Encuesta Libre (Free Polls): Are the other polling firms not free?

Second surprise: The next Congress

The second surprise of September 11 was that the ruling National Unity of Hope-National Grand Alliance Party (UNE-GANA) Alliance won 48 seats in the congressional race, the same number UNE won without alliances in 2007. Pérez Molina’s Patriot Party (PP) won 57 seats, 27 more than in 2007, but the UNE-GANA Alliance results blocked the PP’s chances of winning over the 80 votes needed to control an absolute majority of the 158 congressional seats.

Failing to win the strong bench it had been hoping for, LIDER had to content itself with 14 seats, the same number won by the Union for National Change (UCN), whose presidential candidate Mario Estrada came in fourth in the presidential elections. The UCN attracts many of those who had once voted for former President Alfonso Portillo, currently awaiting probable extradition to the US for money laundering.

Eduardo Suger, the candidate who came in third with about half a million votes, only won two seats for his Commitment, Renovation and Order Party (CREO). Vision and Values (VIVA), Harold Caballeros’ Evangelical party, won six seats in alliance with Encounter for Guatemala (EG), the party led Nineth Montenego, who kept her congressional seat.

With Rigoberta Menchú as its candidate, the Broad Front, a leftwing-indigenous alliance of Menchú’s WINAQ Party, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG) and the New Nation Alternative (ANN) won two seats, as did the National Action Party (PAN), which ran Juan Gutiérrez as its candidate. Finally, the Democratic Union Party (UD), Unionist Party (PU), Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) and VICTORIA Party won one seat each.

A policy of ephemeral parties

The 2011 elections confirm the short life of political parties in Guatemala. The National Advancement Party (PAN) obtained an absolute majority in Congress in 1995 under Álvaro Arzú’s leadership, while today, under a completely different leadership and program, it won only two seats, barely saving it from disappearing altogether.

The FRG, led by retired General Efraín Ríos Montt, got an absolute congressisonal majority in 1999 with Alfonso Portillo as its presidential candidate, yet wasn’t even able to present a presidential candidate this year. Ríos Montt’s daughter, Zury Ríos Sosa, attempted to run but was forced to withdraw. Only because it won one seat it hasn’t disappeared as a party . The (PU) free itself from disaster only thanks to the reelection to Congress of José Alejandro Arévalo, who has great personal prestige for his ability and effectiveness but was reelected by a lead of only 50 votes.

In 1995 Guatemalan Christian Democracy (DCG) carried Vinicio Cerezo—the first civilian President after the terrible National Security Doctrine military dictatorships—to the presidency with an absolute majority. After pulling only 26,190 votes in the 2007 legislative elections, the DCG, until then the oldest political party, disappeared.

Also disappearing, earlier on, were Mario Sandoval Alarcón’s Movement for National Liberation (MLN), which he described as “the party of organized violence” and heir to the movement that ended with the Revolutionary Decade (1944-54), and the Revolutionary Party (PR). In addition, the United Front for the Revolution (FUR) and the PSD, both social-democratic parties, also disappeared following the assassination of their leaders Manuel Colom Argueta and Alberto Fuentes Mohr.

No programmed principles
or political philosophy

This vista of impressive party obsolescence weighing down on Guatemalan politics is complicated by the fragmentation of the parties and desertion by their members, repeated with the breakup of the UNE-GANA Alliance only 20 days after the elections. GANA publicly stated that UNE had betrayed it in the distribution of seats, while UNE downplayed the breakup saying that the Alliance’s only purpose was to support Sandra Torres’ candidature and that, anyway, “it was held together with chewing gum.” So much irresponsibility and frivolity indicates the profound triviality of party politics in current Guatemala—or, more accurately, politics devoid of programmatic principles and political philosophy.

VIVA is asking its supporters to vote for Pérez Molina in the second round. UNE-GANA, Menchú explained that her decision to run was part of an indigenous project to understand the State from within so that the workings of the State will be no surprise if one day the indigenous movement gets to govern UCN and Rigoberta Menchú have leaned more towards Baldizón. Menchú explained that her decision to run was part of an indigenous project to understand the State from within so that the workings of the State will be no surprise if one day the indigenous movement gets to govern.

The face of municipal government

Politics at the local level might appear different. Three parties won 271 (81%) of the 333 municipalities—the PP 126, UNE-GANA Alliance 24 and LIDER 21. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal has mandated repeat elections in five municipalities where violent incidents disturbed electoral proceedings or the actual voting.

Some results belie the appearances of these results. Álvaro Arzú, currently mayor of the capital’s municipality, won a third consecutive term but with only 36% of the votes, a notable decrease from 2007, when he won with 55%. He will have to govern with a multi-party Municipal Council. Eduardo Suger, CREO’s presidential candidate, won the elections in Villanueva, the municipality adjacent to the capital and the third most populous in the country. And a son of Otto Pérez Molina, running with the PP, won as mayor in Mixco, the country’s second most populous municipality, also adjacent to the capital.

Two options

What will happen in the second round on November 6? Well-informed media claim that polls show Baldizón already narrowing the gap with Pérez Molina, who is leading in voter intention by only 2%.

In the first round there were almost half a million invalid or null votes, about 10% of the 68% of the electorate that turned out to vote (some 8% more than in 2007). Will there be as many invalid votes in the second round, with so many of us still having no one to vote for?

As one drives into the capital, Baldizón’s publicity appears to outshine that of Pérez Molina by ten to one. It gives the impression that the PP campaign now has less money than LIDER.

After the first round, Pérez Molina continued emphasizing his ability to guarantee citizens’ security, manu militari, as well as two other issues: social programs and, especially, educational scholarships. Manuel Baldizón offers a range of extremely diverse promises: Bonus 15 (a 15th-month salary for public employees, as there’s already a Bonus 14), application of the death penalty, a scholarship fund so children and young people can achieve their educational aspirations, more job creation and reinforced public safety.

Some experts point out that the Bonus 15 alone would mean increasing the state employee salary budget by over US$1.5 billion. As to the death penalty, Baldizón would have to renounce the American Convention on Human Rights, or San José Pact, to which Guatemala is bound, which prohibits the reintroduction of the death penalty in States that have abolished it and its extension to crimes to which it does not apply. If he were to do so, Guatemala would lose all aid from the European Union. There are those who have nicknamed Baldizón “Bucaram,” after the former President of Ecuador, famous for his craziness and overthrown in a coup.

Pérez Molina or Baldizón?

Given the two competing candidates, the electorate can decide between a return to dangerous military procedures if they elect Pérez Molina and being delivered into the hands of certain “secret” financing if they choose Baldizón.

The shadow of the army’s brutal modus operandi during the internal armed conflict falls over Pérez Molina. And over Baldizón, the shadow of drug trafficking: not so much because he’s accused of being a drug trafficker but because of “liberated corridors” agreements that have to be made, perhaps inevitably, with the drug trade in Petén in order to live peacefully and continue earning a lot of money, as he has done.

Many people think Pérez Molina might be a better public administrator than Baldizón, but remembering his specialization in military “intelligence,” many also fear that Guatemala, a country attacked by its rulers’ paranoia, would again be infiltrated by experts in that same discipline with no respite or peace in any part of national life.

We’re touching bottom

When a society reaches bottom is when it most yearns to breathe fresh air again. And we in Guatemala are touching bottom with respect to procedural democracy after six constitutional presidential terms and seven civilian Presidents. Of course, according to the sensibly pessimistic Murphy’s Law, it’s always possible that the bottom will drop further down. And this may well happen unless we do something innovative to reverse direction.

We recently received a proposal titled “Radicalizing Democracy,” signed by such worthy people as Clara Arenas Bianchi, Edelberto Torres Rivas and Tania Palencia, amongst dozens of others of a similar caliber. They propose that civil society mount a struggle to create a new social movement, hopefully a coalition, to transform mere representative or procedural democracy into a democracy that would be participatory and programmatically innovative, attempting to change not only the appearance but also the heart of the economic, political, cultural and experiential system in which we live.

Such a coalition must be trans-generational. It must be built around people with the wisdom of experience amassed over decades and who, having nothing to lose, have purposeful audacity. It has to be built by weaving together this wisdom with the tremendous responsibility of those who, in their middle years, have their full strength still intact to create and put in motion a new way of doing politics, a service-based politics available for the needs of the great majority immersed in poverty and misery. It also has to be built by weaving together both this wisdom and this creative capacity for service with impetuous youth, lithely and radically dreaming of a different Guatemala, one not racist but egalitarian in their different values, not idolizing money and profit but fiscally solidary, not ambitious for power so as to have others at their feet but ambitious to put all their great potential to the service of this other, possible and much-needed homeland.

A brave and ethical act

I believe that, beyond the results of November 6, 2011, all this is possible and necessary. Financial economist Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight, son of the murdered Alberto Fuentes Mohr, has shown that another Guatemala is possible and necessary in his book Rendición de Cuentas (Accountability, published in August). In it he describes why he resigned from the Finance Ministry during President Colom’s administration, recognizing that the wall of the great fortunes—in present-day Guatemala they talk of Guatemala’s own G8—is so impenetrable it prevented him from getting the fiscal reform law passed in Congress. From that same ministry, his father also failed to achieve this great reform 35 years earlier. His book, a courageous act of outstanding honesty and expertise, shows us that it is possible to be an ethical professional in politics.

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

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