Guatemala’s Elections: Clean Polls, Dirty Politics
Latin America Briefing N°24
16 Jun 2011
Guatemalans go to the polls in September 2011 to elect a president, the Congress and local officials. The vote itself is likely to be reasonably free, but violence and unregulated campaign finance imperil the country’s political institutions. Deteriorated security, drug traffickers’ brutality and polarised politics leave candidates especially vulnerable to attacks. An exorbitant campaign, meanwhile, threatens to indebt office-holders to powerful financial interests, including organised crime, deepening corruption and widening the gulf between citizens and their politicians. State security agencies should redouble efforts to prevent bloodshed, especially in the most dangerous municipalities; politicians and parties must fully reveal who funds them, and the Public Prosecutor’s office, electoral authorities and donors should press them to do so.
The presidential contest will probably pit Otto Pérez Molina, former head of military intelligence, against Sandra Torres, recently divorced wife of incumbent Álvaro Colom, though legal hurdles could still halt Torres’s bid and leave the ruling party scrambling for a replacement. Pre-election violence has already claimed candidates, their families, party activists and electoral staff, mostly at the hands of unidentified gunmen. As drugs cartels battle over transit routes, competition in those areas for the local government posts whose collusion facilitates trafficking may be particularly fierce. Mudslinging and harsh rhetoric from both major parties have set the tone for an ugly campaign. Polarisation between the camps, in both the capital and some municipalities, raises the spectre of disputed results. A flawed registration exercise, while unlikely to seriously impact the quality of the elections, could give losers a pretext for challenges.
Unregulated political finance poses a threat more subtle than violence but as dangerous to political life. Reforms have required parties to limit campaign spending and reveal their financial backers, but politicians disregard the new rules with impunity. Recent election campaigns have been among the costliest, per capita, on the continent, and spending in 2011 looks set to outstrip even previous records, skewing the playing field and – worse still – leaving politicians beholden to shadowy business and criminal interests, many of which are vested in continued lawlessness and a weak state. Political parties provide no protection. Fragmented, disorderly, unrepresentative and largely ideology-free, they offer little to link state and society beyond populism and patronage. Unrestrained money in politics contributes to a rotten and exclusive system that reasonably free voting every few years does little to hide, let alone reform.
Further recommendations are given throughout the briefing, but priorities ahead of the September polls are:
- politicians and the media must tone down inflammatory campaign rhetoric, with candidates instead articulating their policies and how they plan to reverse endemic violence, impunity and inequality;
- the electoral authority, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE), and security agencies should identify municipalities exposed to violence and bolster security measures in those areas. Local TSE branches should broker pacts in which mayoral candidates pledge to avoid violence, respect rules and use only legal, peaceful means to challenge results. Local electoral and other officials in municipalities most likely to have contested results should offer additional opportunities for dispute resolution;
- the TSE should clarify how citizens issued faulty new ID cards can vote and provide breakdowns of the number of voters in each municipality alongside data from 2007 to allay fears that inflated data may facilitate rigging;
- the TSE must publicise, ideally each week, its estimates of parties’ campaign spending. Other government departments should cooperate with it to help reveal party finances. The Public Prosecutor’s office should exploit new provisions in the penal code to force the main parties to reveal who has paid for their campaigns and prosecute those who fail to comply;
- international actors, in particular major donor nations, should press political leaders to reveal their spending and financial backers, as well as for more moderate campaign language, public articulation of their policies, acceptance of results and post-election reforms; and
- the Organisation of American States (OAS) should beef up its planned observation mission, especially as the European Union (EU) will not send observers. The U.S. and EU should complement the OAS mission by funding other international observers and supporting the extensive efforts of national monitors.
After the elections, the new legislature should reform the Law on Elections and Political Parties, in particular adding safeguards to better check the use of money in politics. The legislative agenda is already packed; indeed fiscal reform and laws governing the Public Prosecutor’s appointment, public officials’ immunity and injunction power (amparo
) are priorities. But bolstering political finance rules is crucial. Much of the rot in Guatemalan politics enters through unregulated election campaigns, and the year after polls, before re-election concerns start to consume politicians’ agendas, offers the best shot at closing those gaps.
Bogotà/Brussels, 16 June 2011