Guatemala City, October 26. The national elections, pivotal in shaping a future Guatemalan society, are only 17 days away but few members of the public seem to have noticed.
Next November 12, voters will elect a president, vice-president, new congress, 300 municipal councils and representatives to the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN). The new government and congress will be responsible for implementing the final accords to end the country's decades long civil war, likely to be signed between the government and Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity rebels next year.
If fulfilled, the peace accords could fundamentally change the Guatemalan state from an semi-authoritarian, centralized entity run by mestizos and controlled by a handful of oligarchs of European descent, to a multilingual, decentralized, participatory and democratic state in which economic and political power is shared by the country's various "nations."
Given the unusually high stakes in this election, virtually all the country's social forces are endorsing the process. Influential organizations such as the Rigoberta Menchu Foundation, the Catholic church, the Assembly of Civil Sectors, the National University and the business elite's Chamber of Agriculture, Commerce Industry and Finance (CACIF) have all launched television, radio and poster campaigns urging citizens to vote. Even the URNG rebels, recognizing that their calls for abstention facilitated the far-right Guatemalan Republican Front's (FRG) victory in last year's special congressional elections, are supporting the process. During the electoral campaign the guerrillas have occupied more than 25 towns, urging residents to vote "keeping the future of the country in mind."
In addition, the URNG has announced a truce - the first in the war's 34 history - from November 1-13 to facilitate the voting process.
Since for the first time since the 1954 CIA-backed coup voters will have the chance to choose from an ideological spectrum that is not limited to the right, the government that comes to power in these elections may also be the first in decades to enjoy a degree of legitimacy . Guatemala's popular movement of labor, Maya, and community organizations - which traditionally urges citizens to boycott elections - is both calling on citizens to vote and taking a stab at power through the recently founded New Guatemala Democratic Front (FDNG).
The international community is also showing a keen interest in these elections. At the request of both the government and the URNG, 30 electoral observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) arrived in Guatemala this week. The United Nations has also announced that it will sent official monitors and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) reports that it has received numerous requests from Governments and organizations in Europe, North America and Central America to send observers.
Despite the significance of these elections and their unanimous endorsement by organized society, the average Guatemalan has shown little interest in the process. Campaign rallies have been relatively small and, with a few exceptions, presidential candidates forums sparsely attended.
Some analysts believe this disinterest is due to the disappointments of previous elections. In the elections for the nominal return to democracy in 1985, approximately 61 percent of registered voters turned up at the polling booths. But Christian Democrat President Vinicio Cerezo's promises of curbing military power and broad social reforms failed to materialize and the president left power under a cloud of corruption. In 1990, voters threw out the Christian Democrats and voted evangelist Jorge Serrano into power. Two and a half years later Serrano, backed by army hard-liners, attempted to overthrow the constitutional order.
Hopes renewed when congress named former Human-rights Ombudsman Ramiro de Leon Carpio to replace Serrano. De Leon's outspoken stance against corruption and impunity as ombudsman led to hopes that finally the military could be curbed and democracy entrenched. But de Leon, lacking the support of a political party, has proved to be even more subservient to the army than his predecessors. Human rights abuses and poverty continue.
After 10 years of nominal democracy, Guatemalans find themselves poorer and less secure than when it began. Guatemalans have lost faith in their politicians. In last year's special congressional elections less than 20 percent of the registered electorate bothered to vote.
Although 73 percent of the eligible electorate have registered for these elections, TSE president Mario Guerra Roldan predicts a 45 percent abstention rate. "The voters distrust political leaders," says Civil Registry director Felix Castillo Milla. "When they win power they forget their promises and some are involved in illicit enrichment." The public impression of the crooked politician is reinforced by recent high profile scandals of parties registering candidates under investigation for crimes ranging from embezzlement to mass murder.
Motivating voters is further complicated by the avalanche of parties and presidential candidates contending these elections. With 19 parties and coalitions fronting presidential candidates it is difficult for voters to remember their names let alone distinguish their political programs. Only those parties with considerable financial backing are able to get their message through the sea of electoral propaganda.
Under Guatemala's electoral law, voting booths can only be located in Guatemala City and the provincial and municipal capitals. For the 30 percent of the electorate that lives outside these centers, this means a difficult journey of several hours and the loss of a day's pay to exercise their vote. A study by the University of San Carlos estimates that voting could cost peasants as much as five days pay (US $13) in lost salaries, transport, and other costs.
The president, congress and town councils elected in November are elected for a four year period, while PARLACEN representatives serve for five.. If a presidential candidate fails to win 50 percent plus one of the vote, the two top polling candidates must go to a second round January 7. The victor assumes office January 13, 1996.
Surprises can happen between the first and second rounds. In the 1990 elections National Union of the Center (UCN) party candidate Jorge Carpio won a comfortable lead over runner-up Jorge Serrano. But Serrano's ability to forge alliances with parties left out of the run-off vote carried him to victory in the second election.
Of the eighty seats in the national congress, 64 are elected from the 22 provinces and the municipality of Guatemala and the other 16 are selected from a national list in a complex procedure based on a proportional vote. This method allows some of the smaller parties to win congressional seats even if they are unable to muster enough votes in a specific geographical area.
Guatemala's 20 representatives to PARLACEN are also elected from a national list.
Of the 19 groups contending the elections only six or seven are believed to have a real chance of winning seats in congress or making it to the second round. These, in rough order of their electoral chances, are: the National Advancement Party (PAN), the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), the National Alliance (a coalition of the UCN, Christian Democrat [DC] and Social Democrat parties), the Democratic Union (UD), the New Guatemala Democratic Front (FDNG) and the Popular Liberator Party (PLP).
There is little difference between the front-runners electoral promises. Virtually all the candidates agree that the key challenges of the next government will be ending the war, combating poverty and guaranteeing citizen's security. The voter has to decide which will have the capacity and political will to actually tackle these problems.
PAN - The question on most political observers' minds is not will PAN make it to the second round, but will they win outright in the first? While opinion polls in Guatemala are notoriously unreliable, for several months now all have shown PAN candidate Alvaro Arzu with three to four times the support of his nearest contenders.
PAN's relatively scandal free nine years at the head of the Guatemala City municipal council has earned the party the reputation of being able to get things done with a minimum of corruption. Massive infusions of cash from unknown sources have enabled PAN to inundate the streets and airwaves with party slogans and jingles winning their candidate a level of name recognition the separates him from the sea of other candidates.
However, the recent disqualifications of one PAN candidate for the killing of four men and another for embezzlement have tarnished the partys clean image.
Arzu, a member of the traditional oligarchy, began his political career in the ranks of the far-right National Liberation Movement which served as the surrogate for the 1954 CIA invasion.. He served as mayor of Guatemala City from 1986 to 1990 and later became foreign minister in the Serrano cabinet.
PAN has traditionally supported a neoliberal ideology favored by the country's modernizing right, but Arzu's promise to put the party "at the service of progressive groups" has won him the support of some progressive intellectuals including, according to veteran La Cronica columnist Haroldo Shetemul, nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu. Arzu's gestures to the liberal left have not tempered his commitment to market forces and some observers have dismissed his new progressive trappings as "neoliberalism with anesthesia."
Rumors in political circles say Arzu enjoys the backing of President Ramiro de Leon and the insitutionalist faction of the army, and is the US State Department's preferred candidate.
FRG - This authoritarian-right party saw its electoral star plummet after the disqualification of its charismatic candidate, ex-dictator General Efrain Rios Montt and the indictment of most of its leadership. However the general's replacement, former Christian Democrat congressperson Alfonso Portillo, has helped recuperate some of the party's support.
Portillo, previously a left-leaning academic, defected to the FRG only six months ago. His sudden about-face has earned him the label of opportunist. Nevertheless, his able performances in presidential forums and his moderate-sounding speeches have earned him the sympathies of more centrist voters and led many analysts to tout him as second place finisher in the November elections.
The National Alliance - The Alliance has been plagued by internal divisions due to the CD's nomination of the suspected assassin of UCN founder Jorge Carpio as one of their congressional candidates. The three-party coalition lacks a clear electoral program to distinguish it from the other's and is hampered by association with the corrupt Christian Democratic government of the 1980s.
In addition, its candidate Fernando Andrade Diaz-Duran's wooden performance in candidates forums and election rallies have failed to motivate voters. However, the UCN and the DC, traditionally the country's strongest parties, are the only ones with well-established party organizations throughout the country. The ability of their machines to deliver the vote on election day could carry Andrade into the second round.
Like Arzu, Andrade is a member of the traditional oligarchy. He has had a long career in government, serving as an advisor in the government of General Kjell Langerud, foreign minister under the dictatorship of General Humberto Mejia Victores, and running for president in the 1990 elections.
UD - Apart from the FDNG, the Democratic Union is the only other party that could be considered left of center. The social democratic UD is relatively new to the electoral scene and has attempted to sell itself as a fresh start untainted by the corruption the traditional parties.
Presidential candidate and UD congressional representative Jose Chea Urruela has won some support by promising to establish a government "by the poor, for the poor" if he wins office. The party, however, has no organic links with popular or working class organizations.
While the UD is given little chance of making it to the second round, the party could establish itself as minority power in the next congress.
FDNG - The Front represents popular and labor organizations' first attempt in decades to participate in the electoral process. Originally conceived as a broad front of progressive businesspeople, middle class intellectuals, and, labor, Mayan and popular organizations, the FDNG has developed more and more into a predominantly Mayan party. Of the 180 candidates the FDNG is running in these elections, 137 are Mayan activists. The Front's vice presidential candidate, prominent Mayan leader Juan Leon sees the FDNG as a step towards reconquering Mayan political and cultural rights.
Recent polls place the FDNG in eighth place, but large rallies in various parts of the country indicate support for the left-leaning front is greater than polls show. This may be partly because of a campaign by the army to link the FDNG with the URNG. With the memories of the army's scorched earth campaign and other more recent massacres still very much alive, many rural dwellers fear to openly admit support for the Front. A number of civic committees in the highlands confide it is too dangerous for them to publicly endorse the front, but in private tell their supporters to vote for FDNG presidential candidate Jorge Gonzalez del Valle.
Gonzalez, a director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the 1960's and Bank of Guatemala president in the early eighties is one of the only candidates who attempts to explain how he will pay for his campaign promises.
Among the FDNG's platform are a tightening up of tax loopholes to increase government income (Guatemala currently has the lowest levels of tax income in the Western hemisphere), taxation of unused lands, demilitarization of society, the adoption of the Assembly of Civil Sector's proposals concerning agrarian reform and socioeconomic issues and full implementation of the accords reached in peace negotiations with the URNG.
In a recent questionnaire on environmental issues published in the daily Prensa Libre, Gonzalez was the only candidate to go beyond vague promises of cleaning up pollution to address root causes of the problem.
"Our Response to the ideology that says humanity must exploit nature for profit will be the adoption of the ideology of harmony between humanity and nature. This is a cultural inheritance from the indigenous peoples that would satisfy the needs of the individual without sacrificing the ecological balance," said Gonzalez. The FDNG candidate adds that only integral agrarian reform and development will end the need for campesinos' to clear forest lands to grow food, while an end to the counterinsurgency war will enable the state to invest in the protection of ecologically sensitive areas.
However the front, formed only four months ago and with a primarily low-income membership, lacks the resources to make its message heard. Partly because of this and the military's smear campaign, the FDNG has failed to consolidate itself among voters as a clear alternative to the right-wing parties.
Even Front members have little expectation that their candidate will make it to the second round, but they do hope to win a significant space in congress from where the labor, popular and Mayan movements can make their voices heard from within the Guatemalan state structure.
PLP - The PLP itself is a small party with little popular base but it has found a relatively high-profile candidate in Acisclo Valladares Molina. Valladares, like Arzu, is from the traditional Oligarchy and began his political career in the MLN. After a business career marred by accusations of fraud and embezzlement, Valladares entered politics as Attorney General in the Serrano government. During this time he gained prominence for his role in the successful prosecution of Army specialist Noel Beteta for the murder of Anthropologist and social activist Myrna Mack.
Valladares continued as Attorney General in the de Leon government but resigned last July to launch his presidential campaign.
The former minister uses his past experience to portray himself as a strong law and order candidate who will get tough on criminals and protect the family. Valladares' strategy has struck a chord among sectors of the population terrified by escalating violent crime and who lost their father-figure when Rios Montt was disqualified.
A mid-October poll placed Valladares in fourth place, but his credibility as the law and order candidate was seriously eroded this week when PLP PARLACEN candidate Otto Rene Valenzuela was arrested after a shoot-out with the police, and charged with the kidnapping and subsequent killing of a 19 year old youth.
The PLP's campaign suffered a further setback October 22, when a helicopter carrying Valladares and several advisors to a campaign rally crashed. The candidate is currently hospitalized with injuries to his lower spine.