GUATEMALAN ELECTIONS: MONEY, VIOLENCE, AND POLITICAL POWER Genocide General Perez Molina expected to win the November 4 Runoff
On September 11, 2011 the general elections in Guatemala, which determine mayors, congress members and the president, played out as most recent elections have, with normal violence, denouncements of widespread fraud, and destruction of ballots; the culmination of a political campaign in which at least 35 were killed.
Two presidential candidates go to the run off on in November, the expected winner Otto Perez Molina, of the Partido Patriota [PP] against Manuel Baldizon of the Libertad Democratic Renovada [LIDER].
Multiple public accusations implicate Otto Perez Molina in war crimes of the past (including genocide), acts of corruption and connections to organized crime, leading to the logical question; why do Guatemalans vote for him?
Press reports that Guatemalans, suffering from one of the highest murder rates in the world, are fed up with crime and attracted to Perez Molina's campaign focus on a "hard fist" against crime.
This is a factor but what is much more palpable and widely expressed is a lack of faith in the Guatemalan government and political system. Many feel that politicians steal government resources and are paid off by crime gangs to shield their violent activities, and denounce a deeply entrenched system of political payoffs or patronage as playing a key role motivating the voter turnout.
In an apparent contradiction with the general lack of confidence in the government and political system, there is also clearly a tremendous desire for political participation. There was an extremely large presence of national electoral observers. A coalition of non-governmental organizations formed the Mirador Electoral which placed a network of approximately 3,500 observers in every voting table. The Human Rights Procurators office deployed 5,000 observers in all 333 municipalites. In addition, each political party placed observers in the voting tables, as did the universities. There were also 86 observers from the Organization of American States.
During the last four elections, between 40% and 50% of the eligible voters actually voted, and it is expected that the turn out in today's elections will be similar. Given the widespread expressions of alienation from the political process, the levels of electoral participation are surprisingly high.
In Guatemala, if no one presidential candidate wins over 50% of the vote, then the two leading candidates go into a runoff. Perez Molina won approximately 36% of the vote, ten points below his showing in the polls, and was followed by Manuel Baldizon with approximately 25% of the vote, both considered right leaning. The two parties identified with progressive sectors together won less the 10% of the vote, Harold Caballeros Encuentro por Guatemala gained 5% and Rigoberta Menchu of the Frente Amplio less than 3%.
COMPLETELY NORMAL ELECTIONS: VIOLENCE, FRAUD AND CORRUPTION
In a Mirador Electoral center for collection of voting data, callers describe armed men blocking villagers from arriving in a voting center; armed men gathered a few blocks from the voting center urging voters to vote for the Partido Patriota; a machete fight in another region; voters burning the ballots from a polling station; a riot destroyed ballots; election workers were kidnapped in another; in four municipalities, electoral observers were forced to leave by death threats; busloads of people were brought to vote from one municipality to another in several areas; over 100 municipalities reported the buying of votes.
These incidents generally were not reported on in the media, and when they were they were dismissed as isolated incidents. Commentators observed that the electoral process was 'completely normal', and in a country wracked by violence, it was.
This was just in the day of the voting.
The violence during the pre-electoral campaign was extreme. The Human Rights Procurator's office reported that 35 people have been killed in elections related violence.
Perhaps the most extreme example was the mayoral race in San Jose Pinula where, on July 5, 2011, Luis Marroquin, the LIDER party mayoral candidate, was charged with the murder of two of his competitors and staging an assassination attempt against himself.
LEGACY OF THE GENOCIDE
Moreover, and on a deeper level, the impact of the genocide and State repression of the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, on the electoral process today cannot be underestimated.
One of Guatemala's most recognized academics observed that Guatemala is missing an entire generation of leaders, academics and activists, virtually all identified with the so-called "left", and their presence as political activists is missed.
It is a cynical and illuminating comment on the political impact of the genocide and State repression of the recent past that a retired General (Otto Perez Molina of the Partido Patriota), implicated directly in genocide, torture, etc, is expected to win these elections, and that the progressive parties carried less than 10% of the vote.
Perez Molina had been a leading presidential candidate in 2007; he was the first to register as a presidential candidate in 2011 and entered the campaign with a high level of voter recognition. Perez Molina's two top challengers, Sandra Torres of Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE) and Harold Caballeros, were confronted by legal challenges to their inscription as candidates. In polls, Sandra Torres lagged significantly behind Perez Molina, and was distantly followed by Harold Caballeros.
Torres, wife of the current president Alvaro Colom, obtained a divorce earlier this year to overcome a constitutional ban on relatives of the president from running for office. Her political opponents challenged her inscription, claiming that the divorce should not be recognized. Torres' popularity plummeted and by June 30, 2011 the Supreme Court made its definitive decision that she could not participate in the elections.
Much of Torres' base of support apparently shifted to Manuel Baldizon, candidate from a new political party LIDER who had been elected as congressmen in 2007 on a ticket with Colom and Torres' UNE party but who had broken with UNE early on.
Harold Caballeros, a former evangelical pastor, was the candidate for coalition that included Encuentro por Guatemala, a party most recognized for the participation of the progressive reformist Congresswoman Nineth Montenegro. After months of legal challenges related to a prohibition on clergy's participation in elections, on August 17 Caballeros was allowed to remain a candidate, but his supporters claim the legal challenges had fatally weakened his campaign.
Just three days after Sandra Torres' inscription was blocked, on July 3, Rigoberta Menchu of the progressive political coalition Frente Amplio announced her candidacy, the last presidential candidate to be received.
MONEY AND ELECTIONS
The use of funds to manipulate the vote has been the illegality most denounced by the Frente Amplio political coalition, one of the only political parties that apparently did not have the patronage of organized crime or the business sector. The Frente Amplio came in with a low showing in the polls, just under 3% of votes, and denounced the unequal footing Mayan political candidates faced given the use of illegal funding.
In July, the press reported that the agency charged with supervising elections, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, believed several political parties had surpassed their spending limits, but the parties refused to submit financial reports they were legally obligated to present. Journalists estimate that in publicity budget leading parties spent more than double the permitted budget.
For many years, elections have been riddled with denouncements of the use of money and employment pressure to manipulate votes, promises of government projects conditioned on votes and seasonal labor overseers escorting villagers they regularly contract to voting centers.
In this election the Frente Amplio denounced discovering cash payments of Q200, about $25, to voters outside the polls and denounced the use of both illicit funds (organized crime) and promises of government development project funds.
Since the beginning of President Colom's candidacy, rumors had it that first lady Sandra Torres would be UNE's next presidential candidate. She was in charge of a significant social program, including a cash subsidy to some of the nation's poorest families, which encouraged women in isolated villages to register to vote.
According to Mario Itzep, Director of the Reno'j, a member of the Mirador Electoral observation effort, there has been one significant change in the national register of voters: there has been a significant growth in voter registration of women in the municipalities with over 80% indigenous population, apparently as many as one million newly registered Mayan women voters. Whether the voting tendency of these women is reflected in the polls in hard to say, but they do represent a significant portion of the 7 million registered voters.
BEYOND POLITICAL PARTIES: THE DEMAND FOR A POLITICAL SYSTEM OPEN TO PARTICIPATION
Most Guatemalans feel alienated from the political system. Money fuels the political parties, and parties are controlled by economically powerful, be they business sectors with their international corporate and investors partners, or be they drug traffickers whose illicit resources are generated by US drug demand and by the so-called "war on drugs" policy.
The scars of the US backed military regimes one generation later are deeply felt, and the same sectors that gained control of the nation through brutal repression won the elections.
In past years, the formation of independent municipal Civic Committees seemed a possible route to electoral participation, but are limited only to gaining mayoral elections. This year the role of Civic Committees declined.
COMMUNITY CONSULTATIONS - REAL DEMOCRACY, FROM 'BELOW'
But over the past four years a massive process of popular participation in political decisions has taken shape in indigenous communities threatened by mines and dams. Hundreds of thousands have participated in community consultations.
Though the Supreme Court (long dominated by the economic elites) has declared the consultations to be 'valid, but non-binding', international law supports them and in any case they have been a massive space for political participation by the population most excluded from participation in the party system.
Another important advance for democracy has been the reform of the Attorney General's Office. Approximately one year ago, a candidate that had the broad backing of civil society was named Attorney General and the advances the office has since made against organized crime are impressive (as well as courageous and risky).
This is a small but significant advance in the consolidation of democracy, even though the impact has been muted by the judiciary which has maintained high levels of corruption and actions outside the framework of the law.
TRANSNATIONAL CORPORATE AND INVESTOR POWER
The influence of transnational corporate and investor interests in Guatemala has significantly contributed to the shortcomings of the democratic process. In 1954, the US government plan and helped orchestrate the devastating 1954 military coup and then supported over 30 years of military regimes.
Perez Molina has been seen to maintain especially close ties to the US Embassy, as made clear in Wikileaks cables. Investigators report that Perez Molina was even paid by the CIA when he was head of military intelligence.
US and Canadian corporations are benefiting from the political structure in Guatemala today. The Spanish public relations firm Ostas and Solas ran Perez Molina's campaign, just as they ran the campaign of Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Haitian President Martelly. Ostas and Solas has ties to American lobbyists like former Ambassador Otto Reich who is widely believed to have participated in the Honduran coup.
International actors have played an active and harmful role in the construction and maintenance of an exclusive and exploitative political system in Guatemala, ... but Guatemalans will re-found it.
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