Sunday's Guatemalan Elections_ An Overview

Tony Abdo gojack10 at
Mon Nov 10 14:24:04 MST 2003

Below is a good summary of the Guatemalan elections from a Left leaning
Danish NGO website.    It was written in July this year, but the essentials
have not changed.    Results from the Sunday election will put Berger and
Colom in a runoff election on Dec. 28.      The former guerrilla group, the
URNG gathered only a few percent for their candidate.     The evaluation of
Colom as now being a Rightist despite his previous leadership in the URNG is
of note.

Meanwhile, most US Left interest in the Central American region seems mainly
confined to building opposition to CAFTA, the US government effort to extend
NAFTA farther south.     A couple of weeks ago Houston had a demo against a
meeting of these CAFTA organizing talks there, that gathered 100 protesters
and a dribble of local media interest.     Upcoming protests are in Miami
next week and in Washington DC in December, both cities where further talks
will take place to get CAFTA underway.

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*  (from

Guatemala City, 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.

Unconstitutional candidature

The General’s candidature has been deemed unconstitutional 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

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