Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

GUATEMALA: Retired General and Populist in Duel for Presidency

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Sep 12 2011 (IPS) - A retired general and a populist tycoon will face off for the Guatemalan presidency in a Nov. 6 runoff, since no candidate won 50 percent of the vote in Sunday’s elections.

Retired general Otto Pérez Molina of the right-wing Patriot Party, a former head of military intelligence in the 1980s who is accused by human rights groups of committing war crimes during the bloody 1960-1996 armed conflict and of answering to the interests of the country’s most powerful business groups, took 36 percent of the vote.

His closest challenger was Manuel Baldizón of the populist LIDER party, who was accused of irregularities when he was a member of Congress. The powerful provincial businessman, whose campaign was marked by populist and controversial promises – for example, that he would take the Guatemalan national soccer team to the World Cup – won 23 percent of the vote.

With 97 percent of the ballots tallied, Eduardo Suger, an academic from the right-wing CREO party, came in third with 16.2 percent.

The only left-wing candidate, Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchú, who represented the Broad Front coalition, was one of the candidates trailing the pack of 10 contenders, with just over three percent of the vote.

At 65 percent, voter turnout in Sunday’s general elections was the highest seen since 1985.

Despite an atmosphere of civic celebration, incidents were reported in remote parts of the country, including the burning of ballots, clashes between members of rival parties, and isolated accusations of irregularities.

But despite a high level of election-related violence during the campaign, which was described as “alarming” by the Procuraduría de los Derechos Humanos – the ombudsman’s office – and fears of election-day violence and fraud, international observers said the vote went smoothly.

“The process has gone ahead with complete normality, despite a few isolated incidents in certain areas that had been classified as red zones, where something could happen,” Carmen Diez Orejas, Spain’s ambassador to Guatemala, told IPS.

“The general atmosphere has been one of fiesta, an opportunity for voters to pronounce themselves and make choices about the future of all Guatemalans for the next few years,” the diplomat added.

José Dávila, coordinator of Civismo Electoral 2011, a coalition of civil society organisations that observed the elections, told IPS that voters “won first prize in comportment in the elections, because they legitimised the process, above and beyond both isolated and structural irregularities.”

In that respect, the activist pointed to delays by the electoral court in announcing the results, said political parties were still bussing in voters to polling stations, and said the candidates’ campaign pledges were based on vague promises, rather than concrete solutions to real problems.

This nation of 14 million people is one of the Latin American countries lagging farthest behind in economic and social terms. One of the biggest obstacles is the high rate of poverty, which affects over half of the population, while 17 percent of the population is classified as extremely poor, according to United Nations figures.

This Central American country is also one of the most violent in the world, with a murder rate of 48 per 100,000, according to the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Central American Human Development Report 2009-2010. That is in comparison to a Latin America average of 25 per 100,000 and a global average of nine per 100,000.

But 98 percent of the 15 to 20 murders a day go unsolved and unpunished, according to the U.N.-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

The weakness of the political system, where parties often respond to powerful private interest groups rather than the public good, is another of the major pending challenges for strengthening democracy in the country, analysts say.

“This is the time to carry out in-depth reforms of the electoral and political party laws, with participation by society as a whole,” Dávila said.

Guatemala has a long history of coups d’etat, strong men and dictatorships. But the constitution adopted in 1985 began to usher in a rule of law, by limiting the president to one four-year term to keep leaders from perpetuating themselves in power.

However, social activists and experts are calling for major reforms of the election laws, in order to further strengthen the democratic system.

“I don’t agree with the call for reforms; what is needed is a new law, that responds to 21st century needs,” Oscar Bolaños, a former president of the electoral court, told IPS.

Among other aspects in need of revision, he said, are oversight of campaign financing, the requirements for creating a political party, and the definition of election crimes.

Civil society organisations have insistently argued that because the country’s political parties are financed by huge private donations, politicians are beholden to vested interests after they are elected. They also complain that the parties do not invest in training and preparing political leaders, who often end up entangled in corruption scandals, which have no legal consequences.

Guatemalan voters will now have to decide between Baldizón, 41, who describes himself as the “candidate of the people” and whose campaign pledges have caused controversy. For example, he promised workers an extra month’s salary a year, and proposed a five percent flat tax on income and earnings, to replace the 12 percent sales tax – in a country which already has one of the lowest tax burdens in Latin America.

Meanwhile, 60-year-old Pérez Molina, whose party has a clenched fist as its logo and whose campaign slogan is “Iron fist, head, and heart”, has promised to crack down hard on crime by strengthening the police and army, and to promote employment through incentives for investment in tourism, exports and mining.

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