Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ELECTIONS-GUATEMALA: Solidarity or Zero Tolerance?

Inés Benítez

GUATEMALA CITY, Nov 2 2007 (IPS) - Guatemala’s costly and violent presidential election campaign will come to an end with Sunday’s runoff vote, in which retired General Otto Pérez and his tough stance on crime will face off with businessman Álvaro Colom, who has put an emphasis on extending a helping hand of solidarity to the poor.

Colom, of the centre-left National Union of Hope (UNE), won the first round on Sept. 9 with 28 percent of the vote, and Pérez, of the rightwing Patriotic Party (PP), came in second with 23.5 percent.

Two polls published Wednesday by the Prensa Libre newspaper gave Pérez the edge, forecasting wins for the conservative candidate of 53 to 47 percent and 52 to 48 percent, respectively. But in survey results released Monday by El Periódico, Colom had 39 percent ratings and Pérez 35 percent.

The PP candidate enjoys stronger support in the capital, while Colom is more popular in the country’s predominantly indigenous rural areas. Officially, Guatemala’s native ethnic groups make up 41 percent of the population, although non-governmental organisations put the proportion closer to 65 percent. The rest of the population is basically of mixed-race (European and indigenous) heritage, with a tiny white minority.

“Guatemala must be the only country in the world where a campaign slogan like ‘mano dura’ (strong hand or iron fist) can so quickly become attractive that a candidate can turn voting patterns around in just a couple of months,” Alfonso Gumucio, an expert on communication for development, told IPS. “It shows that people’s fear is greater than their desire for social change.”

In this Central American country of 13 million, where the official poverty rate is 51 percent (although unofficial estimates put the figure at around 80 percent), Pérez’s promise to get tough on crime has been welcomed by a populace fed up with violence and at the mercy of youth gangs and organised crime, which has penetrated state institutions.

Extortion rackets keep people in fear and force many to flee their homes and jobs. Only 25 percent of crimes are reported to the authorities, who investigate a minute proportion of these, and an even smaller fraction are prosecuted.

Guatemala has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world. According to the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, 2,857 homicides were committed in the first half of 2007, most of them with firearms.

The two candidates take different approaches to the soaring violence. Pérez promises “’mano dura’ against crime,” by declaring a state of emergency, for instance, while Colom talks of “a hand outstretched in solidarity” and of “national unity”, putting the priority on social policies to fight poverty.

Both Colom and Pérez, however, are in favour of maintaining the death penalty.

In the view of political analyst Pedro Trujillo, the main challenge for the next president, who will govern the country from 2008 to 2012, will be “to keep their campaign pledges.” He said that both candidates “have focused on the need to solve the security problems as soon as possible.”

Colom, who is standing for the third time, and Pérez, running for the first time, have both promised to restructure and purge the state security forces.

On Sept. 26, Julio Hernández Chávez resigned as chief of the National Civil Police after two of his bodyguards were accused of the murders of five suspected drug traffickers, who had been seized some days previously while playing football in a crime-ridden Guatemala City barrio.

To help investigate infiltration by organised crime in state institutions, an International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) will begin work in January – the result of an agreement signed in 2006 by President Óscar Berger and the United Nations.

The current election campaign is regarded as the most violent in the past 20 years, with over 50 people killed, including candidates for different offices, party activists and family members.

On Oct. 8 the secretary of the parliamentary PP bench, Aura Salazar, was murdered, and three days later the UNE campaign manager, José Carlos Marroquín, resigned saying he had received threats from the mafias.

Gumucio said the campaign had been especially violent, “not only in terms of the verbal attacks, but in terms of the killings of people linked to the two parties competing in the second round.”

The analyst regretted that “violent death has become a routine feature of everyday life, in Guatemala more than in any other country.”

Mutual accusations between the candidates and smear campaigns were also common currency.

Pérez alleged that Colom received financing from drug trafficking mafias, while the UNE candidate pointed out that his rival was an army officer during the 1960-1996 civil war that left over 200,000 dead, mainly rural indigenous civilians.

“The only country in the Americas to have experienced genocide may elect a military candidate” after two decades of civilian government, said Gumucio.

Trujillo said the mudslinging campaign has been “fierce but often convincing. Although many of the attacks are false and are often personal, there are signs of financing by criminal elements, which have not been satisfactorily explained away, and this troubles people.”

Besides, the fact that the candidates have not held a public debate is an indication of Guatemala’s “lack of political maturity,” he added.

Last week Pérez refused to join Colom in a televised debate because of his rival’s “verbal attacks and aggression.” The UNE leader, for his part, accused Pérez of “offending” his wife and children.

Analysts consulted by IPS said that the abstention rate, which was over 40 percent in the first round, would be even higher in the runoff. This has happened in elections in the past, as a result of the apathy of an electorate which has no great expectations of either candidate.

The slanging matches and lack of serious debate between the candidates “discourage voters who are not politically committed, and sow doubt among those who had already made up their mind how to vote,” Iduvina Hernández, head of the non-governmental organisation Security in Democracy (SEDEM), told IPS.

“The campaign has not been aimed in the slightest at voters; rather, both parties have been obsessed with canvassing mayors and legislators who could deliver mass votes,” Trujillo said.

Political analyst Gustavo Porras said the low percentages of the vote garnered by Colom and Pérez in the first round reflects the electorate’s disillusion with the political party system. The 300,000 null and blank ballots cast represented a “protest vote” and demonstrated the existence of “a social conscience,” he maintained.

This campaign has also differed from others in the past because of the huge amounts spent on publicity and advertising, and “the tendency for the rhetoric to be markedly conservative,” Hernández said.

Colom’s campaign posters show people holding their thumbs together and spreading their hands in the shape of doves, contrasting with the raised fist of Pérez, the “mano dura” candidate.

On Sunday Guatemalans will choose one of these images. But according to Trujillo, the new president who takes office on Jan. 14 will not have a strong mandate, because of the low expected turnout. “He will not have much legitimacy, and will have to fight to earn the trust of the rest of the electorate,” he said.

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