The Presidential Elections in Guatemala (ARI)

The Presidential Elections in Guatemala (ARI)

Theme: The presidential elections in Guatemala were won by Álvaro Colom, the representative of Unión Nacional de la Esperanza (National Union of Hope, UNE). His presidency, which will begin in January, will face a complex agenda, including public order and security issues, as well as the need to maintain economic growth.

Summary: The run-off round of the presidential elections in Guatemala, which was held on 4 November, took place in a climate of complete normality and resulted in a winner who does not ostensibly promise many changes. Álvaro Colom, leader of Unión Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), with a moderate left-wing programme, obtained 53% of the votes in his third attempt to reach the presidency. Security and employment were the pivotal themes of the campaign and UNE’s organisational strength, particularly in rural areas, was decisive in the triumph. Without a majority in Congress, although with the largest minority, UNE will have to appeal to a policy of consensus to be able to implement its programme. The vanquished Otto Pérez Molina, of the Partido Patriota (Patriotic Party, PP), emerged as a political figure of nationwide reach, consolidating his party as a crucial player on the Guatemalan political scene.

Analysis: Guatemala has been democratically electing its leaders for 20 years, largely without upheaval, and its electoral system has been improved over time. The 1985 Constitution provides for a presidential system with a strong vice-presidency, able to partly offset the power of the President himself. In the last few elections, which have always gone to a run-off, centre or centre-right parties have generally won, with largely undefined programmes and with rather more left-leaning vice-presidents. It was only during the presidency of Alfonso Portillo (2000-04), leader of the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (Guatemalan Popular Front, FRG), that more populist policies were introduced which, as is usually the case, did not yield better specific results. Neither these policies nor the charismatic personality of the party’s founder (General Efraín Ríos Montt) could prevent the sharp decline in support for the FRG stemming from the many cases of open corruption during that period of government. Portillo, who now lives in Mexico, has legal cases pending for embezzlement and misappropriation of funds which so far have not resulted in any penalty.

The current Administration, which will hand over power on 14 January 2008, is led by Oscar Berger, the main figure in the Gran Alianza Nacional (Great National Alliance, GANA), an alliance of parties which are generally considered to be centre-right but whose ideological profiles are not too clear. For more than 20 years, Guatemalan political parties have lacked a precise political definition, and all tend towards the political centre and are relatively leader-oriented. For this same reason, they tend to succumb to in-fighting and ephemeral agreements with other political forces, which ends up by creating instability in the overall Guatemalan political scene.

President Berger’s was a discreet government, with no major successes or failures, and in general his Administration is considered to have been good. There was sustained economic growth, although not particularly notable, so poverty was reduced, albeit slowly, especially because of rapid growth in a population which is still largely rural. Figures in the last year were especially good: growth is estimated at 5.6%, inflation at 7.3% and export growth at 20%. This latter figure, plus the huge volume of remittances sent by Guatemalans living in the US (more than one million, most of whom are illegal immigrants) have strengthened the national currency amid macroeconomic stability that boosts business growth.

However, the GANA did not manage to reap the rewards of this relative boom. Internally divided and with various problems which prevented it from choosing a good candidate in a timely manner, it stood for election in a weakened position and could only manage third place in the first round, although it does have a sizeable representation in Congress.

September Elections
In the first round of elections, voters were faced with numerous options, for both the presidency and Congress, as well as municipal governments. The UNE won overall, and its presidential candidate obtained 28% of the votes, followed by the PP, with 24%. Just over half of the population chose one of these two options, and the rest of votes were shared between a dozen other candidates. Votes for Congress were equally widely dispersed: the UNE finally obtained 51 seats, followed by the government coalition, the GANA, with 37, the PP with 29, the FRG with 14, and other smaller parties which in total managed 27 seats. Guatemala’s Congress has 158 seats, so that no single political party is now in a position to control it. At the first round, the far left, represented by Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (National Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity, URNG) and Alianza Nueva Nación (New Nation Alliance, ANN), which comprise people who belonged to guerrilla groups in previous decades, scarcely managed just 2% of votes and only two seats. The indigenous candidate, Rigoberta Menchú, previously linked to the guerrilla organisation Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (Guerrilla Army of the Poor, EGP) and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1992, did much worse than expected, obtaining scarcely 3% support. Particularly notable was her scant electoral appeal in indigenous highland areas, where she obtained even les than 3%; these areas voted for the UNE and, in some districts, for candidates linked to local groups and to the FRG.

In the first round of the elections the strengths and weaknesses of the two main candidates already came to the fore. The message of Álvaro Colom, a 56-year-old engineer, focused on social promises, such as education, health and housing, which appealed to many voters but which did not trigger real enthusiasm. Colom, a quiet and rather uncharismatic man, had already stood in the previous two elections, and reached the run-off in 2003, only to lose to Oscar Berger, with 47% of the vote. The UNE, the party which he founded some years ago, had grown in all districts of Guatemala, consolidating a political machinery which, after the fragmentation of the GANA and the decline of the FRG, made it Guatemala’s foremost political force, and the only one with an active presence throughout the country. The party capitalised on this advantage, and it obtained 108 of the 332 seats in Congress in the first round of elections, giving it a sound basis from which to opt for the presidency.

The other candidate, Otto Pérez Molina, focused almost exclusively on the problem of security with his slogan ‘a firm hand’. This watchword quickly became popular among voters, who are extremely worried about the climate of insecurity in the country, with high murder rates and a number of drug-trafficking groups and maras, which are violent criminal youth gangs who ruthlessly extort the country’s poorest inhabitants. Otto Pérez Molina, a retired general who had been among the signatories to the 1996 Peace Accord, managed to identify himself completely with the slogan, to the extent that many people simply call him ‘Firm Hand’. With a relatively new party organisation, but a clearly defined image and a campaign which began before that of the other candidates, the PP successfully managed to reach second place among voter’s preferences, winning the right to stand in the second and final round of elections, overtaking better organised parties with longer political track records.

The 4 November Election
The Electoral Commission (Tribunal Supremo Electoral) decided that the run-off would take place almost two months after the first round. This somewhat undermined the momentum of the parties standing for election and rather saturated the electorate, which was soon faced with a ‘dirty’ campaign of rumours, more or less veiled insults and accusations between the two candidates. Both were said to have links with organised crime (with no way to verify such claims) while Colom was presented as a weak man, dominated by his wife, and Pérez as a rude military man incapable of implementing a social agenda. There was not really violence in the campaign, although there was strong language, many rumours and a climate which eventually turned part of the electorate right off voting.

During those long weeks the opinion polls began to favour first the PP’s candidate, then in some cases to give a dead heat and finally to give one or other candidate a slight edge. Otto Pérez began strongly, attracting the vote of the centre-right who recognised the importance of public security in the country’s development and who did not trust the UNE’s candidate and his possible links to persons supposedly involved in criminal activities, like the retired General Ortega Menaldo. But ‘Firm Hand’ made some mistakes which he would later rue: thinking that victory was his, he did not attend a public debate which had been organised, he proved incapable of broadening the focus of his campaign to include other key issues, his message began to sound repetitive and indeed somewhat empty and, in the end, there was a small scandal relating to members of Congress from his own party which took its toll on his credibility.

Colom, meanwhile, tried to project the image of a calm and serene man who had analysed the country’s problems in depth and who had well-studied solutions. However, aside from just his image, the UNE’s candidate established commitments at local level and secured new support, so that, particularly in rural areas, he was able to maintain and increase the flow of votes which he already had thanks to his well-oil political machine.

The results, at all events, were tight: Colom obtained 52.7% of votes, vs 47.3% for Otto Pérez, in an election where abstention increased with respect to the first round. Colom’s voters were distributed quite uniformly in rural areas, and he won in 20 of the country’s 22 departments, while Otto Pérez was more successful in Guatemala City, where he obtained almost 60% support.

Abstention was high (around 53%), and was higher in the run-off than in the first round, as usual in Guatemala and in many other countries. There are a number of reasons for this: first, many of the Guatemalans who have emigrated to the US, totalling more than one million people, must be factored into the electoral map. The current registration system, which is rather antiquated, prevents this factor from being quantified precisely, but it is obviously significant in a country where there are no more than 6 million voters. Secondly, part of the abstention is explained because when the election was reduced to two candidates who had obtained just 52% between them in the first round, many voters had no real incentive to go to the polls. The fact that neither of the two final candidates triggered great negative reactions also explains to an extent why people did not turn out in larger numbers, since few saw much imminent danger for Guatemala’s political life either way, unlike what happened in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia in previous months. Other voters, whose concerns were more local, did not vote simply because their interest focused on the election of mayors, which was already complete, or because they did not feel motivated to vote because they found the candidates’ messages uninspiring. The fact that election Sunday was the last day of a holiday period which began on 1 November may also partly explain the low turnout.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that there were not a significant number of void or blank ballots and that the process was impeccably run. There were no incidents to speak of, no violent confrontations and the count was not contested by either party. Three hours after the polls had closed, the official results were already available, almost in their definitive form, and shortly afterwards the losing candidate recognised his opponent’s victory with dignity and without reserve. Both their messages, that same night, were conciliatory and politically mature; the President-elect, among other things, said: ‘from now on, I am President as a result of an election and not secretary of a political party’, and he called for a great national agreement and showed willingness to compromise with all political parties.

The Post-electoral Political Scene
The President-elect is now slowly starting to appoint the people who will make up his cabinet, which may not be complete until the end of the year. Meanwhile, with the rest of political parties, meetings are being held to attain consensus regarding the forthcoming legislative agenda.

The prevailing impression, at least in these early days after the election, is that Colom will not make wholesale changes to the way the country is run, and will maintain a line which might vaguely be labelled social-democratic. This means that the current social policies will almost certainly be maintained and expanded, with possible increases in education and health spending, although these will not be large enough to have a huge impact. The UNE has promised to focus its efforts on rural areas and to put forward an agenda that will help women and indigenous people, removing any trace of discrimination. But the rigidity of the current budget and the commitments which have already been made to members of the teaching profession (which is dominated by the radical left) place restrictions on the budgetary modifications which might be made. In Guatemala, despite the image abroad, tax pressure is relatively high and there are no specific ways to increase it significantly, especially if this is to be compatible with an ongoing interest in attracting foreign investment, broadening the country’s tourist capacity and developing local production. Current taxes are not low compared with the rest of the region, and, while tax pressure in general is lower than in neighbouring countries, this is not because there are few taxes or because these are low, but because of the large submerged economy, especially in rural areas.

There are fears in the business community that Colom might try to raise tax rates, although nothing clear has been said in this connection. But at all events such changes would not come immediately and without consultation but, as in the past, after a negotiation process which will not doubt be long and complicated and which will require agreements that must be hammered out in Congress. It is worth highlighting that the new President is not part of the populist wave which, urged on by Chávez’s Venezuela, has unleashed fear and instability in some Latin American countries, like Bolivia and Ecuador, for instance. Quite the contrary, Colom does not propose to modify the Constitution, and he does not have an aggressive or conflictive discourse calling the poor to arms against the rich, and the President-elect’s future travel plans as supplied on Monday, 5 November, to the press did not include any of the three countries mentioned above. Membership of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), which includes the five Central American nations, the US and the Dominican Republic, is not even remotely called into question, particularly due to the sound economic results which it is already yielding one year after it effectively entered into force.

Conclusions: There are unlikely to be major changes in Guatemala in the next few years; at least, this is the more or less widespread impression in political circles. The new government will face serious challenges and must respond to the myriad promises made by the candidate during the election campaign. How it tackles these challenges will determine the degree of acceptance among public opinion and its effective capacity to negotiate with the remaining political parties.

Among the main themes requiring the attention of the new President is how to combat organised crime, which, deep-rooted as it is, prevents the poorer sectors from progressing economically and frightens off investment, as the opposition candidate was at pains to point out throughout his campaign. The problem is a complex one and so far no formula appears to have been found that would allow it to be resolved quickly and efficiently. An encouraging sign in this regard may be the promise by the Spanish government, with whom Guatemala has excellent relations, to provide US$100 million in aid to cooperate in security throughout the entire Central American Isthmus. However, Colom will also have to meet the demands of rural sectors which voted for him and will not be able to ignore the country’s good current business climate either. The President-elect faces the delicate mission of providing greater security, maintaining and boosting economic growth, and also placating the innumerable pressure groups who will try and influence his Administration. He will not face a united or very vigorous opposition, but if he fails to find quick and effective solutions, this could swiftly change and, like his predecessor, he could find himself in a position of political weakness which would undermine his position greatly. However, we will have to wait until the first few weeks of 2008 to see exactly what the new government’s real priorities are, what measures it plans to implement and how the country’s political climate over the next few years looks set to develop.

Carlos Sabino
Universidad Central de Venezuela