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The Guatemalan Elections
O n November 9, 2003, Guatemalan citizens were called on to vote in the fifth national elections since the reestablishment of “democracy” in 1985. Voting in Guatemala, a country that has been embroiled in civil war for most of the last half century, is both a privilege and a risk. Thirty political leaders and activists have already been murdered during the most violent electoral campaign in Guatemala’s short history of democratic government.
Lines began to form outside of voting stations well before 6:00 AM, as Guatemalans waited for hours to cast their vote in what was to be a day of unprecedented levels of civic participation. For many Guatemalans, these elections were not about choosing the best candidates, but rather about defeating the presidential candidacy of former military dictator, Efraín Ríos Montt.
In 1982 Ríos Montt, popularly known as “the General,” seized power in a bloody coup d’etat at the height of the 36-year civil war. During the General’s 18-month rule, he oversaw the infamous “scorched earth” counterinsurgency campaign that exterminated the populations of over 400 indigenous villages in the name of anticommunism. An estimated 19,000 largely non-combatant civilians were murdered and hundreds of thousands more were forced to flee to Mexico.
this election cycle, the General and his governing political party,
the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), mounted an extensive electoral
campaign of bribery, coercion, and physical intimidation. But neither
the fear of Ríos Montt’s legacy, the widespread threats
of violent repercussions if the General lost, nor the FRG’s
efforts to buy votes would keep most citizens from braving the dangers
and voting their conscience. “The massive and unprecedented
participation of voters succeeded in neutralizing the fears that
many sectors had of a possible fraud or a day filled with violence
organized by the ex-paramilitary groups,” pronounced one magistrate
of the Supreme Elections Tribunal. Voters, emboldened by the massive
turnout, prophetically mocked the General as he cast his. As the
day progressed, administrative disorganization, an antiquated civil
registry database, and paralyzing congestion at some voting stations
proved to be the most significant impediments to citizens attempting
to vote. By early the next morning it was clear that the General
would not be going to the second and final run-off round of the
The defeat of Ríos Montt and his FRG saved the fragile Guatemalan democracy from disintegrating once again into a quasi-democratic dictatorship. Still, these elections have not dramatically altered the political landscape in this violent, corrupt, and impoverished Central American republic. The old oligarchy of Guatemalan business elites connected to the military and organized crime remains in control of the government.
A Candidacy 20 Years in the Making
R íos Montt had worked to bring about what he considers his preordained destiny to govern Guatemala ever since falling from power in 1983. A clause in the 1985 constitution barring former military rulers from the presidency has since kept Ríos Montt from regaining power. After two failed attempts to challenge this constitutional prohibition in the early 1990s, Ríos Montt dedicated himself to building the FRG into a major political power. The FRG adopted the General’s right-wing populist rhetoric and paternalistic image of “ruling with a strong hand” to build a major following among the rural and urban poor. In November 1999, the FRG won the presidency and a congressional majority, in part, because of the widespread rejection of the incumbent political party, PAN, which had privatized state electric, telephone, and mail enterprises in the previous government. Ríos Montt was appointed president of the congress in 2000 by the FRG majority and held that position three years consecutively by amending the constitutional clause that decreed a one-year term limit. Over the next three years, the FRG congressional majority systematically appointed personal friends and political associates of Ríos Montt to the Constitutional and Supreme Courts. The stage was set for the General’s presidential aspirations.
On July 14, 2003 the Guatemalan Constitutional Court overturned the rulings of the Supreme Elections Tribunal and the Supreme Court to recognize Ríos Montt’s candidacy in a four to three ruling. The following day this ruling was suspended by the Supreme Court in order to hear the dozens of appeals filed by political parties and human rights organizations. In response to these legal challenges, masked FRG congresspersons led thousands of paid FRG sympathizers, transported to the capital, to riot in favor of the General’s presidential candidacy. The national civilian police force refused to confront the mobs that paralyzed the capital for two days, specifically targeting aggression toward the courts, critical news media centers, and political opponent headquarters. On July 30, the Constitutional Court upheld its previous ruling and ordered the Supreme Elections Tribunal to inscribe Ríos Montt as the FRG’s presidential candidate.
The FRG drew on their control of the government as well as their military influence to mount a massive electoral campaign of bribery and intimidation. A central component of the General’s strategy was the reorganization of the 500,000 ex-members of the civilian Civil Defense Patrols (ex-PAC), a paramilitary force organized during Ríos Montt’s regime to “protect” villages from communist and guerilla threats. In early 2003, the General’s political protégé, President Alfonso Portillo, rekindled fears of violence and repression across the Guatemalan countryside by declaring that the government would pay each ex-PAC member 5,240 Quetzals (which amounts to 3.9 percent of GNP) for “their service during the civil war.” The reorganized ex-PAC members, along with paid gangs, became the new henchpeople of Ríos Montt, threatening human rights workers, reporters, election observers, and opposition candidates, and intimidating voters and blocking political opponents’ entry into towns. Indigenous leaders across the country accused the FRG of provoking fears that if the FRG did not win the elections that the violent attacks against their communities of the early 1980s would be repeated.
In addition to using public funds to pay the ex-PAC, the FRG used its control of government social assistance programs to give away housing, agricultural, and educational grants to peasant farmer families in exchange for their vote. Construction materials, pots, agricultural tools, and bags of food labeled with FRG propaganda began to appear across the countryside. In San Marcos three children were crushed to death in a mob fighting over political gifts distributed by local FRG officials. The FRG attempted to prevent the press from exposing these corrupt electoral practices through threats and intimidation. The editor in chief of El Periodico was threatened at gunpoint in his house after publishing scathing editorials about Ríos Montt and four reporters of the critical national newspaper, Prensa Libre , were held hostage by members of ex-PAC. The FRG even used their governmental authority to broadcast political speeches and events during liberal news programs and interviews with the opposition candidate. Pre-election polls revealed that these campaign tactics of political gifts and intimidation had the greatest effect in the poor indigenous communities of the Guatemalan highlands where the vast majority of massacres and military killings were concentrated under Ríos Montt’s regime.
In spite of these efforts, the polls in the last two months before the elections consistently reported that the General’s percentage of the popular vote had remained constant at 11 percent, leaving him in third place behind Oscar Berger and Alvaro Colom. In a last ditch effort the FRG majority passed a congressional decree on October 28, mandating a stoppage of all economic activity during the day before, the day of, and the day after the national elections. FRG congresspeople argued that the forced nationwide shutdown of business would give all Guatemalans time off to vote and a much-deserved holiday. In effect, the decree would have silenced the press, immobilized security forces, prevented voters from being able to travel or purchase gas, and impeded the ability of elections observers to access rural areas and communicate denouncements. The mandated economic shutdown would also have caused millions of dollars in lost revenues, something the domestic oligarchy of powerful business elites would not allow. President Portillo eventually gave in to extreme pressure from the private sector, civil society, and the international community to veto the bill.
The “Civic Festival”
I n the days before the elections, political analysts announced Ríos Montt could only win through massive electoral fraud. Given the unwillingness of the FRG administration to ensure the integrity of the electoral process, the Supreme Elections Tribunal and the dozens of elections observation teams in the country urged all eligible Guatemalans to vote in order to minimize the chances of electoral fraud. The citizens responded in record numbers and with the aid of over 9,000 national and international election observers, marginalized the efforts of the FRG to steal the elections. The day of the elections, observers in municipalities across the country denounced the FRG and other political parties for overtly paying citizens cash in exchange for their votes. Groups of ex-PAC looted voting centers, burning ballots, and forced local elections to be cancelled in six municipalities. Thousands of ballots premarked in favor of the FRG were discovered in a van without license plates that was stopped at a highway checkpoint. These tactics of bribery, sabotage, intimidation, and fraud succeed in increasing Rios Montt’s percentage to 19 percent of the popular vote, 7.5 percent more than his total in the previous week’s national poll.
Still, these efforts of sabotage were not enough to overcome the nation’s eagerness to dispose of the FRG after four years of corrupt and ineffective administration. During the past four years, the FRG altered the Guatemalan Constitution, corrupted the judicial process, and dismantled the democratic government for private interests and personal gains. Ríos Montt diverted upwards of 50 percent of the national budget to the military through executive budget transfers from other governmental departments. Billions of dollars of public funds remain lost and unaccounted for, while most charges against political officials have been blocked by the FRG’s blanket application of immunity. For many citizens, no bribe could make up for the economic hardships of the last four years that witnessed the economic growth rate drop to -.06 percent in 2002. Physical threats or risk of violent repercussions were not more intimidating than the insecurities Guatemalans faced everyday. In 2003 alone, incidents of murder and violent crime rose by 163 percent, with over 30,000 Guatemalans wounded or killed by firearms. When all the votes had been counted, the General remained in third place behind Oscar Berger’s 34 percent of the vote and Alvaro Colom’s 26 percent of the vote, prompting a runoff.
In the end, the defeat of Ríos Montt in favor of the recycled presidential candidates, Oscar Berger and Alvaro Colom, was just another reshuffling of the self-interested dominant sectors in Guatemalan politics. The parties of the old oligarchic business elites backed by international capital have successfully replaced a military-based party with strong ties to organized crime that has been at odds with the private sector for the past four years.
Oscar Berger is a partner in a number of national businesses and sits on numerous company boards as well as Central American economic counsels. Berger served as mayor of Guatemala City, the second most important political office in the country, and lost his former bid for the presidency in 1999 in the second round of run-off elections. Berger’s campaign on the Grand Alliance political ticket has been characterized by simple slogans, vague promises, and an avalanche of political propaganda.
Alvaro Colom, the self-proclaimed “godfather of the factories” in Guatemala, is founder and president of the National Commission of Industries as well as president of two major industrial companies. Colom’s experience as director of the National Fund for Peace from 1991 to 1997 and role as negotiator in the return of thousands of Guatemalan refugees earned him the presidential nomination of a coalition of leftist parties in the 1999 elections, in which he finished third. During the current elections, Colom succeeded in attracting supporters from both sides of the political spectrum to his newly created party, the National Union of Hope, by playing on both his conservative economic beliefs and his slightly leftist discourse.
To their credit, the business and political careers of both Colom and Berger are distinguished by the absences of major corruption scandals. But given the structure of politics in Guatemala, both parties were strongly tempted to pact with the military, organized crime, and the still powerful FRG congressional block to tilt the balance of power in their favor in the tightly contested run-off elections.
Oscar Berger won the run-off election on December 28 and, with his inauguration on January 14, assumed control of a weakened government apparatus with a pluralistic congress, empty coffers, and a growing national debt. The first challenge of his new administration will be to fulfill the basic responsibility of government to provide for the security of its people. Guatemala has become the second most violent country in Latin American, averaging 12 murders a day.
Reinvigorating the steadily declining economic situation in Guatemala will be an equally challenging task for the new Administration. Currently over 57 percent of all Guatemalans live below the poverty level and of the 8.2 million Guatemalans of working age, 3.2 million are unemployed. The long-term future of Guatemalan economic policy will be largely determined by the new administration’s stance in the final negotiation rounds of the Central American Free Trade Agreement and the loan restructuring negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. All signs imply that Guatemala will tread the well know neoliberal economic path—IMF imposed structural adjustments, macro-agricultural export promotion, increased tax brakes for foreign capital investment, and reduced tariff barriers for foreign products—that many Latin American countries have walked during the 1980s and 1990s. These neoliberal policies have further polarized economic inequalities across Latin America and have led to widespread civil rebellion challenging the democratic process in Ecuador, Bolivia, and, most recently, the Dominican Republic.
Matthew Kraft is a graduate of the Stanford University School of Education and is currently volunteering as a human rights observer in Guatemala.
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