2011 Guatemalan Presidential Elections: a Look into the Future?

On September 11, 2011 Guatemalans casted their vote for their next President. Among the ten candidates, none is expected to garner an absolute majority to avoid a second runoff vote in November. One candidate in particular has critics concerned about the future direction of the country. That candidate is Otto Pérez Molina from the Partido Patriota. A win by Molina incites fear in those who remember the 36-year civil war that resulted in the death or disappearance of more than 200,000 people. This year three human rights defenders filed a formal report of torture with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture against Molina. As a General Molina served in the Ixil Triangle, which is located in the Department of Quiché, a region that was subject to more than 344 massacres. Despite this highly questionable track record, Molina leads the polls. The possible election of Molina is not the only reason Guatemala’s presidential election is controversial.

Some analysts state that most Guatemalans are unhappy with their options today while others depict the voters as desperately embracing Molina and his ‘Iron Fist’ mottoOthers indicate that the Guatemalan State will again return to the military, in part due to a political scandal that permitted Molina’s Partido Patriota to take the lead after the Constitutional Court barred Sandra Torres Casanova’s participation. Torres’ absence left the two-party coalition, Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza-Gran Alianza Nacional, without a presidential candidate shortly before election day. Lastly, other analysts find that persistent levels of societal violence are the source of support for Molina. Regardless of the reasoning, one unfortunate theme spans the news; life in Guatemala is not improving. Violence, corruption, and drug trafficking are increasingly incorporated as the bedrock for State policies and practices.

Otto Pérez Molina

Otto Pérez Molina

Does Guatemala’s election represent a step forward for democracy? Mike Allison of the Christian Science Monitor is highly skeptical of any forward progress that could result from electing any of the candidates. First, Molina is an alleged war criminal. Second, Torres (who is now barred from participating) and her family are rumored to have ties with drug trafficking rings and money laundering. Torres is the former wife of current President Álvaro Colom. Third, Manuel Baldízon, who is now Molina’s main competitor, is rumored to have connections to drug trafficking and organized crime in the Department of Petén. If that wasn’t enough to instill doubt, the presidential candidates’ use of dirty money from drug traffickers and units of organized crime threaten to destroy Guatemala’s democratic process and future. The only “positive” note highlighted in Allison’s article is the reduction in campaign-related deaths, which is down from 68 deaths in 2007 to 35 this year.

The image of Molina and his iron fist threatening to take back Guatemala with a fierce crime-fighting machine, recall memories of the military massacring peasants. The State (military) was responsible for 93% of the atrocities. Damien Cave of the New York Times explains that the population is capable of doing the “unthinkable” and electing Molina for two primary reasons. An estimated 60% of the registered voters are between the ages of 18 and 30 years old—and in their eyes, the civil war is a “vague shadow.” Second, the population is desperate for change and tired of daily violence. But, Cave questions whether Molina is capable of imposing his iron fist to reduce organized crime, drug trafficking and poverty without violating human rights. Molina’s purported goals are further shadowed by drug money that has infiltrated this electoral campaign. The three primary presidential candidates have spent between $50 to $70 million, a sum that qualifies the Guatemalan election as “among the priciest in the world.” In sum, the winning candidate will be forced to pay his or her debts to the criminals, which will only continue “a perverse circle” of crime and corruption.

The 2011 Guatemalan election will forever be marked as a spectacle due to its corruption, connections to Mexican cartels, and overall scorn for the law according to the José Elías of the Spanish newspaper, El País. The presidential candidates have essentially set the stage for converting Guatemala into the first Narco-State in Latin America. Not only have the candidates surpassed the campaign finance limits set by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal but also refuse to disclose the sources of the funds. Elías argues that the latter is of most concern. In addition, this election is marked by a spectacle spawned by the current President Colom and his now ex-wife Torres, who has since been barred from participating as a candidate. Because Guatemala has been “plagued by dictators,” the legislature put measures in place to forbid quasi re-elections or elections of relatives of current or past Presidents. To avoid this rule Torres decided to simply get a divorce from President Colom. But, the Constitutional Court found Torres’ strategy as illegitimate, and rejected her as a presidential candidate. This left a major political party without a presidential candidate, an event that is without precedent.

The overall sentiment expressed above is also expressed in, Guatemalans Vote as Violence Fuels Former General’s Election Bid, of the San Francisco Chronicle. But, Kevin Casas-Zamora, former President of Costa Rica and current senior fellow at the Brookings Institute highlights a broader issue that should concern the international community. He stated, “Guatemala has such profound problems that I’m not sure any of the candidates can turn the country around.”

The international community has long been concerned with Guatemala and this election season is no different. Numerous U.N. missions have been sent to Guatemala, each with different tasks but with the same overall goal, peace and respect for basic international human rights. The most recent effort is the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which began in 2006. CICIG, an independent body, was created to support the prosecution and investigation of sensitive issues connected to corruption, organized criminal networks, drug trafficking, and clandestine organizations. Although the process is slow and often filled bureaucratic loopholes, CICIG has enabled Guatemala to progress. However, the current presidential election poses serious threats to the progress made. Before election day, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay made a statement highlighting the difficulties Guatemalans face and the challenges the Guatemalan authorities must meet in order to assure the respect for fundamental human rights. Without mentioning any candidate, High Commissioner Pillay reiterated Guatemala’s commitments to international agreements and emphasized that it was one of the first States to ratify the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

2 Responses to “2011 Guatemalan Presidential Elections: a Look into the Future?”

  1. Tessa says:

    Great analysis Michelle. Looking forward to you keeping updated on this as it progresses.

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  2. Dan St. John says:

    I wonder, in a country with such disrespect for the rule of law, how the regime can change. The candidates are flaunting the law by exceeding campaign contribution limits and not disclosing sources. Where can relief be sought? A former general is likely the next president – with this comes the backing of the military. A court’s judgment, legislature’s decree, or international sanction stands little change of enforcement if the president disagrees.

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