Elections in the pipeline
Elections in Guatemala are approaching, read this update from our correspondent about polls, economic policy, vote buying, the candidature of Rios Montt and the different electoral observers initiatives.
16. October 2003
Slated for November 9, general elections are less than a month away in the Central American Republic of Guatemala, and many observers agree that presidential campaigns amount to little more than a mediocre corollary of previous campaigns, most of them flavoured by authoritarian overtones and heated rhetoric about ‘getting things done’. Things to be done include improvements in citizen security, equal access of the 11.2 million inhabitants to justice, getting kids into schools and keeping them there, health services for all, and a long laundry list of interventions to get the country up and running with accountable state institutions and equitable economic recovery.
The polls: left, right and centre
The most recent poll (4th issue by Vox Latina) places presidential contenders in the run-up to the elections as follows: Oscar Berger of the Great National Alliance (GANA) takes the lead with 37%; followed by Alvaro Colom of the National Unity of Hope (UNE) with 18%; Rios Montt of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) with 11%; and Leonel Lopez Rodas of the National Progress Party (PAN) with 4%. Polls on the votes for Congress members follow the same pattern with insignificant variations. Several candidates for the Presidency have complained that the polls are untrustworthy; the FRG has even pushed its own poll which, unsurprisingly, poises that party as a winner of the general elections.
Public policy: all very nice, but where is the beef?
Electoral platforms, as indicated in the introduction, leave a lot to be desired. Most consist of promises with no concomitant explanations as to who, what, when, where why and how the programmes will be implemented, in other words the nuts and bolts of the various government plans. The preferred style of candidates at the countless forums leading up to the elections is messianic: lots in the way of promises and little in the sense of actual content. Various academic and social actors have presented their own proposals for the next government period, but none has been recapped in any official programme. The Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity (URNG) is the only political party that has integrated the Peace Accords into their programme.
Economic policy: an electoral offer with different degrees of state intervention
At a recent forum on economic policy in which technical experts from the various political parties explained their analysis and derived strategies, the contours of economic policy inclinations of some of the most important contending political parties emerged as follows:
- State as facilitator: in this group, one finds the National Progress Party, the Unionist Party, and the Great National Alliance. A traditional model for liberal economic development, with the reservation that the GANA alliance leans more towards a World Bank inspired type of development approach, mixing an emphasis on the provision of basic social services with privatisation.
- State as interlocutor: parties whose economic policies are in line with the IMF include the National Unity of Hope and Authentic Integral Development (DIA). Relatively speaking, this means that the parties mentioned pledge an increased focus on the development of social services and programmes in comparison with GANA, PAN and the Unionist Party.
- State as interventionist: in this category one finds the Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity (URNG), inspired by the UN and Nordic tradition of social democratic welfare models.
- Odd man out: in every sense of the expression, the current ruling party --Guatemalan Republican Front -- remains the odd man out. Their party politics is a mixed bag of conservative and social policies, and their political discourse is one that panders to the military, the petit bourgeoisie and the peasantry. In short, a conservative, populist party.
The public: between abstention and apathy
Voter turnout in electoral events has been on a steady decrease in Guatemala since 1985, and it is likely that the coming elections will also be marked by a low turnout. Given the scant institutional legitimacy of political parties in Guatemala, this is not difficult to understand. Some will vote with their feet, i.e. migrate, while others will abstain from voting out of apathy (given the array of unviable political options), lack of time and money to make the journey to a voting centre (sic!), while others will simply be intimidated into staying at home. Vote buying, especially by the Guatemalan Republican Front, is taking place regularly across the country; sympathies are purchased in exchange for fertilizers and other goods. Even more seriously, it has been alleged that the official party has detailed plans to generate fear and assure electoral fraud, a.o. by mobilizing street gangs to intimidate and keep people from voting.
The context: a rosary of ‘anomalies’
According to recent bulletins from a US Human Rights Commission on Guatemala, the present electoral process is unfolding against the same limited backdrop as in 1995 and 1999: reforms to the Law on Elections and Political Parties are yet to materialize; and in addition, serious irregularities have been observed: the Constitutional Court, according to the opinion of most legal scholars and commentators, violated the Constitution by permitting the registration of General Rios Montt; at least 20 political activists have been killed; the Human Rights Ombudman’s central offices have been raided; the founder of Guatemala’s leading investigative newspaper has received death threats; FRG-supported bullies have unleashed gratuitous violence in the streets; FRG has used state funds to promote official candidates both at municipal and national level; public officials have been coerced into supporting the official party; there has been ample confusion regarding the location and the manner in which the voting will take place; even the secrecy of voting has been called into question; false identity cards have been identified; and the 2002 population census seems to be incongruent with the number of registered voters. However, in this laboratory of pre-electoral problems, national communication media are striving to provide fair and critical coverage.
Electoral observers: do-goodies or efficient watch dogs?
National elections in Guatemala have been observed by the international community before, but electoral observation is not a panacea against all ills. An important, albeit somewhat underestimated, aspect of international electoral observation is to dissuade violence and let Guatemalans vote in peace, with no fear of participating in a democratic event. Needless to say, this implies a lot more than mere oversight on the election day proper, the real challenge is to fill the need for accompaniment before, during and after the elections. In this sense, preparations for massive electoral observation are well underway and include international as well as concerted national efforts. The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office has mobilized 3800 observers; a shared national initiative, el Mirador Electoral (the Electoral Observer) another 2200, while the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union (EU) account for about 250.
National observers: building national capacity to nurture democracy
El Mirador Electoral (The Electoral Observer) is unique in kind and scope. With Norwegian, Swiss, Swedish, Canadian and US funds channelled through the National Democracy Institute – NDI, a US institution – four Guatemalan institutions have joined forces to oversee that the electoral process and transition of power unfold according to prescribed democratic principles. CALDH, a human rights institution, is overseeing the human rights situation in relation to the election. INCEP, a Central American institute for policy analysis, is monitoring the moves of political parties. FLACSO, a Latin American faculty for social sciences, is monitoring the Supreme Electoral Tribunal in relation to registration of voters and candidates as well as complaints procedures for denouncing anomalies. Accion Ciudadana, the national chapter of Transparency International and an MS partner organization, is mounting a network of national observers, monitoring political parties’ financing of election campaigns, as well as putting into practice for the first time in Guatemala the ‘Quick Count’, a parallel vote counting system designed to detect discrepancies in relation to the official count of votes cast for the Presidency and Vice-presidency.