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Guatemala: Prospects for change in political leadership?
Lone Hvass outlines candidates, problems and the position of civil society organisations before the upcoming general elections in Guatemala in November 2003.Reporting by Lone Hvass
02. July 2003
On Friday, 16 May 2003, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal issued a call for general elections to take place on Sunday, November 9, in the Central American Republic of Guatemala. Four and a half million registered voters, as well as hundreds of thousands more citizens who are still on time to register, have been convoked to the ballot box to cast their votes for President, Mayors and Members of Parliament. The new political administration will take up the mantle from January 2004 and remain in office for four years; and in case none of the presidential candidates should obtain an absolute majority of votes, a second round of elections has been scheduled for December 28.
The general panorama of the elections is marked by an unclear definition of presidential candidatures, volatile political alliances, and a high percentage of uncommitted voters. Voter turn-out is believed to hit an all-time low, and traditional voting patterns – voting against the current administration but without a clear conviction about the alternatives – are likely to prevail in the up-coming elections.
According to an opinion poll published in the major daily elPeriodico on May 27, the presidential candidate poised to win the elections is Oscar Berger of the Great National Alliance (39.4%), followed by Alvaro Colóm of the National Unity of Hope (9.4%) and ex-dictator Ríos Montt of the Guatemalan Republican Front (3.8%). All of these represent right-wing party politics. The remaining candidates, mainly representing parties with a leftist or left-of-centre slant, attract 2% or less of the votes, and uncommitted voters account for no less than 32.8%.
Oscar Berger and the Great National Alliance
In November last year, in the first internal elections held by a political party in Guatemala, Oscar Berger won the presidential candidature of the National Progress Party (PAN/Partido de Avanzada Nacional), leaving behind contestant Leonel López-Rodas who is the Secretary-General of the party. In February this year, apparently due to internal strife, Berger decided to leave that party and form the Great National Alliance (GANA / Gran Alianza Nacional), but even so, about one third of the electorate still identify him as leader of the National Progress Party. The Great National Alliance encompasses the Patriot Party, the Reform Movement, and the National Solidarity Party, all minor political parties whose alliance in itself may be seen as an achievement, at least nominally and against the backdrop of the usual workings of political parties in Guatemala where such alliances are the exception rather than the rule.
Poll results show that Berger is well liked by voters across age, class and urban/rural divisions. The candidate has previously served as mayor of Guatemala City for two consecutive periods and continues to enjoy considerable public appreciation.
Alvaro Colom and the National Unity Of Hope
Despite his past political trajectory in the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG / Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional de Guatemala), Alvaro Colom is identified by most observers as representing right-wing politics, a.o. because most of his advisers are right-wing. Originally a member of URNG, Colom later decided to go his own way but saw little if any prospect in courting neither the extreme Left from which he came (URNG) nor the moderate Left (New Nation Alliance, or ANN / Alianza Nueva Nacion). As a result, in 2000 he founded the National Unity of Hope (UNE / Unidad Nacional de Esperanza). Alvaro Colom ran for President for URNG in the elections in 1999 and came in third; and some analysts suggest that voters still identify him as leader of URNG.
Ríos Montt and the Guatemalan Republican Front
The most salient feature of all the pre-electoral commotion is the contentious (pre-) candidature of General Ríos Montt. Montt, ex-dictator of Guatemala and current president of the country’s national Congress. Having founded the party, Montt is considered the ‘born leader’ of the FRG, Frente Republicano de Guatemala or Guatemalan Republican Front. He ruled as de facto President from 1982-83 when Guatemala was immersed in armed conflict. During his rule, the General was instrumental in implementing the infamous ‘scorched earth politics’ travelling under the name of ‘counter-insurgency measures’ which left a death toll of some 100.000 people and entire villages burnt down to the ground.
The General’s candidature has been deemed in-constitutional by most observers. Montt carried out a military coup in 1982, and according to the 1985 National Constitution, having committed such an act renders him ineligible for public office.
His candidature has so far been declined three times: at the General Citizen’s Registry, subsequently by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, an institution set up in 1983 to oversee voter registration and organize elections to the effect that these evolve in a free and fair manner, and recently by the Supreme Court of Justice. The last appeal option is with the Constitutional Court whose ruling cannot be appealed.
It would seem as though all odds are against the General’s candidature. However, although the tradition of the Guatemalan electorate is to ‘throw out’ the old administration in favour of a new one, there is a still much clamour to install hardliners to lead the country. Citizen security is affected by an increase in violence, killings and kidnappings, and people are longing for law and order, across class divisions. The current, weak administration of the justice system may favour the commitment of in-constitutional acts. Ríos Montt presented his candidature for the elections in 1995 and 1999 and was rejected on both occasions by the Constitutional Court; but it takes five negative rulings of this instance to set a legal precedent, and rumour has it that the General is now friends with the majority of judges in the Constitutional Court.
Immunity at stake
The rush to ‘legalize’ Ríos Montt’s presidential candidature has been linked to deliberations in Congress to introduce legislation on genocide. Even if such legislation would not be retroactive, his party fears that the General will face trial at the International Criminal Court if he leaves Guatemalan territory, and his only chances of preserving immunity is to get elected as President, or at least preserve his present office as Member of Parliament.
1999-2003: The Republican Heritage
The current political administration headed by President Alfonso Portillo leaves a legacy of corruption scandals and a heavy increase in external debt. Last year, for what the indicator is worth, Guatemala was ‘decertified’ by the US Government as an ally in the fight against narcotics activities which means that US Congress believes the government in Guatemala is not pulling its weight when it comes to fighting the drug trade. Due to its proximity to Mexico and the US, Guatemala is a major staging area for cocaine and heroine shipments, and money laundering is thriving. It is likely that drug-money will fund some of the major electoral campaigns.
Peace Accords left behind
Parliamentary activity during the Portillo administration shows a significant backlog in pushing the legislative agenda established by the Peace Accords signed in 1996. A few laws have been passed in the area of decentralization and ‘ethnic discrimination’ has been included in the penal code, if in a somewhat diluted fashion compared to what indigenous spokespersons would have liked. Most bills that were turned into legislation during the present legislature are linked to the financial sector or ratification of international treaties and have little to do with the priorities established by the Peace Accords.
Civil Society Organizations Speak Out
While confusion, scandals and alleged scandals abound in the electoral panorama, civil society organizations are launching watchdog initiatives many of which echo MS’ programmatic projection for the next five years in the Central American region, in reference to strengthening of democracy. One of the MS partner organizations in Guatemala, Accion Ciudadana, is currently mounting a national network of voluntary election observers. The organization is also carrying out activities with a more long-term projection such as working with Members of Parliament and Political Parties to enhance the democratic infrastructure and working procedures of Congress; improve transparency in the internal selection of candidates for Parliaments and Presidency; and educate the general public on why their vote matters and what features to look for in a candidate running for public office. One of Accion Ciudadana’s allies, the indigenous organization NALEB, is preparing a systematic monitoring of the next Legislature from an intercultural point of view to verify that Parliament engenders and approves legislation in favour of distributive justice.
Lone Hvass is Long-term Development Worker in Accion Ciudadana in Guatemala