The Guatemalan Elections

On Nov 9, 2003, Guatemalans will cast their votes for President, congressmen and local municipal leaders. A second round involving the two strongest presidential contenders will follow on Dec 28 if no candidate wins an absolute majority. The electoral environment is marked by an ambiguous definition of presidential candidates and party platforms, allegations of fraud and electoral violence being committed by the government party, and a high percentage of apathetic voters.

The Candidates

According to a May 27 opinion poll published in El Periodico, the presidential candidates apt to win the elections are those of the traditional right, backed by Guatemala’s powerful oligarchy. These include Oscar Rafael Berger of the Gran Alianza Nacional (GANA), Leonel Lopez Rodas of the Partido Avanzando Nacional (PAN), and former leftist candidate Alvaro Colom of Uni! dad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), who represents slightly more centrist politics.

These right-wing candidates have presented almost identical platforms. Focusing mainly on security, they pledge to eliminate corruption and take strong measures against delinquents and organized crime. In the economic sector, the candidates plan to build up infrastructure in order to attract foreign investment and tourism. Also on the agenda, are health and education, services the right wing candidates adamantly promise to improve. Little detail has been offered, however, on how these goals will be accomplished.

The 2003 elections will offer only one truly leftist option- Rodrigo Asturias Amado of Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG). Asturias, the son of Guatemala’s most famous novelist, joined the leftist rebel movement in 1962 and was one of Latin America’s longest-serving guerilla commanders. In 1982, his group joined 3 othersto form the URNG with Asturias as its leader. In 1999, 3 years after the signing of the peace accords, the URNG was registered as a political party. In this year’s elections, Asturias has been the only candidate to even mention the country’s peace accords. Central to the URNG platform, are the accords’ focus on reducing the role of the army and protecting human and indigenous rights. The URNG boasts the only indigenous candidate, Pablo Ceto, who is running for vice-president, as well as a 50% indigenous staff. Asturias has also promised to increase public services and regulate the economy in order to ensure a more just distribution of wealth. The URNG, however, has little chance of winning on November 9 due to a lack of funds and weak party structure.

The most controversial of this year’s candidates is without question Efrain Rios Montt of the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG), who earned the nickname “The General” after takin! g power in a 1982 coup d’etat. Rios Montt’s 16 month rule is considered one of Guatemala’s bloodiest periods since the Spanish conquest. Under his command, entire villages were massacred in order to wipe out rebel havens, and some 100,000 mostly indigenous Guatemalans were killed. The massacres were committed by both the army and by Guatemala’s paramilitary group, Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil (PAC). Created by Rios Montt himself, the PACs consisted mainly of indigenous villagers who were often forced to commit atrocities against their own and neighboring villages. Guatemalan human rights groups have since made complaints to national and international courts, accusing the former dictator of genocide, though he has not been successfully charged. In 1989, Rios Montt founded the FRG, but was blocked from running for president in the last two elections due to an article in the Guatemalan constitution prohibiting those who have par! ticipated in a coup from becoming presidential candidates. In the 1999 elections, however, the FRG made tremendous gains as party-member Alfonso Portillo won the presidency and Rios Montt became head of congress.

Rios Montt’s Controversial Registration

In June 2003, The General once again sought registration as a presidential candidate. Following a rejection to his pleas by three lower courts, Rios Montt’s case reached the Constitutional Court. After a highly secretive selection process, 7 magistrates were chosen to hear his case, 4 of whom were known FRG sympathizers. The court’s initial decision to approve his candidacy provoked outcries from human rights workers and civil society as a whole, prompting the Supreme Court to suspend Rios Montt’s registration. The former dictator responded with a warning that the FRG could not control the anger and frustration of its supporters and would not be held responsible should there be acts of violence. Three days later, on July 24, thousands of Guatemalan peasants descended onto the capital from all over the country in what was ostensibly a spontaneous show of support for Rios Montt. However, eyewitness reports indicate that the demonstration had every appearance of being orchestrated by members of his party. The protesters were reportedly brought into Guatemala City in FRG vehicles, and were given orders by party members, including Congressional deputies and other high-ranking officials. The mob was then supplied with weapons including guns, machetes, clubs, gasoline, and tires to burn. Participants were given 3 meals and many recieved 150 Quetzales in cash to wreak havoc on the city. Hooded men torched buildings, smashed store windows and burnt cars, waving machetes and chanting threatening slogans. Journalists were a particular target, as were human rights workers. One 65-year old reporter, Hector Martinez, died of a heart attack while running from demonstrators, and photo-journalist Juan Carlos Torres just managed to escape armed protestors who destroyed his photographic equipment and drenched him in gasoline, apparently intending to set him alight. The police and the army made little effort to maintain order, and not a single person was arrested. It was only after a command from Rios Montt that the rioters finally dispersed the next morning, an indication to many that the ex-dictator was behind the riots. The FRG has denied any involvement. On July 30, less than a week after the riots of Jueves Negro, or Black Thursday, the Constitutional Court, overturned the Supreme Court’s decision, voting 4-3 in favor of allowing Rios Mont tot run for President.

Fraud and Intimidation

Many in Guatemala and the International Community fear that Jueves Negro was only a small part of an FRG scheme to commit fraud in the upcomi! ng elections. Due to the high number of national and international observers that will be present on election day, it is unlikely that the FRG will be able to actually alter the ballots. The party has therefore already begun taking alternative measures to ensure its success. In one indication of fraud, several opposition parties have denounced the issuance of thousands of falsified cedulas (voter ID cards) to people linked to the FRG. 700,000 blank cedulas were reportedly stolen from government warehouses and issued to foreigners and people ineligible to vote in Guatemala, who used the names of deceased citizens or those living outside of the country on their new cards. Local FRG leaders have been accused of failing to report their dead in order to facilitate this type of fraud. The FRG has also manipulated the election process by using state resources to finance offers of fertilizer, building materials, and other gifts as wel! l as free transport on election day, in exchange for an FRG vote. Fertilizers, so important to Guatemala’s 8 million campesinos (peasants) are unaffordable for most of the population- 85% of which lives below the poverty line- and readily accepted for a promised vote.

The government party relies on sticks as well as carrots to ensure the support of its citizens. According to human rights groups, the government is linked to drug-trafficking and organized crime groups that use violence to intimidate voters, a tactic employed by the Guatemalan dictators of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Many in the country’s interior still fear the government after decades of civil war. According to human rights worker Carmen Carmey, “Guatemala suffered so much during the conflict. This climate of fear has not been overcome, especially in the rural areas.” Although the presidential vote is secret, the FRG has been accused of warning voters about hidden cameras! in voting stations. In addition, the vote by municipality is publicly known, provoking fear that village members will suffer collective punishment if their municipality does not vote in favor of the FRG. Aidee Lopez of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission has received reports that members of the FRG threatened to kill everyone in a particular village should the party’s candidate lose the municipal vote. Those tied to the FRG have also employed tactics of intimidation against institutions that threaten their immunity.

According to Mirador Electoral, a Guatemalan election observation group, electoral violence has increased dramatically since last November with a total of 17 reported killings. These attacks have primarily targeted human rights defenders, journalists, and political candidates. Clandestine groups linked to state security agencies were apparently to blame for the violence. In one attack, the headquarters of Guatemala’s national Human Rights Prosecutor (PDH) Sergio Morales, who recently initiated a probe of clandestine security forces, were searched and robbed. Morales considers the attack part of a “psychological battle,” in order to deter people from probing into government activities. “They broke in with the objective of introducing terror and confronting our institution,” he insists. “They want to say to all those working in human rights, ‘be careful, our power structure remains in tact.'”

Thus far, the FRG has enjoyed total immunity for its illegal acts. As with the case of Jueves Negro, no action has been taken against the perpetrators of the PDH break-in. As the party continues to commit acts of violence without any sort of penalization or investigation, the climate of immunity is perpetuated. According to Jared Cotler, political advisor of Minugua, “Lack of investigation of violence allows it to continue.”

Electoral Indifference

The government’s campaign of intimidation coupled with rumors of fraud may be contributing to a high level of apathy among Guatemalan voters. In addition, most Guatemalans have little access to information about political parties or candidates. Communication is hindered by limited media access, a high illiteracy rate, and a large non Spanish-speaking indigenous population. Pablo Ceto of the URNG notes that “there is little information in (Guatemala’s) interior. The parties don’t have enough of a network, with the exception of the FRG.” Even if many Guatemalans could access information on their political candidates, they would find little substance in what is being said. The electoral process has been marked by a lack of political debate and ambiguous party platforms. Prensa Libre Columnist Carolina Escobar Sarti laments, “the candidates don’t have defined platforms or plans for government. They are more focuse! d on promises than reality.” In Sarti’s view, politicians are concerned with maintaining power rather than serving the long-term needs of the population: “They don’t think at all about the long haul,” she says. “They think more about politics than a structural plan.” The notion that no president will be concerned with the needs of a people stricken by poverty has caused indifference to the outcome of the elections. Past candidates have made promises that were never fulfilled, and the Guatemalan people are disillusioned with the electoral process as a whole. Ileana Alamilla, Director of the media center Cerigua, holds that “apathy is caused by a lack of holding promises. Most people are not thinking about politics, but about surviving.” In the 2003 elections, human rights workers and the international community are endorsing any candidate who is not Rios Montt. The hope is that, if nothing else, Guatemala’s human rights situation will not deteriorate over the next presidential term. However, many recognize that it is not sufficient to merely hope that the worst of the worst does not become this country’s next leader. A better alternative must be sought, and most are hoping that over time, a party that truly works in the interests of the Guatemalan people will emerge victorious.

LISA VISCIDI can be reached at: