Guatemala Pre-Election Series Part 1: September 6, 2015 General Elections

August 31, 2015

Washington, DC – Guatemalans will cast ballots on Sunday, September 6, 2015 for president and vice president, as well as 158 congressional deputies, 20 deputies to the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN), and mayors and councils for all 338 Municipalities. The elections, overseen by the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (Supreme Electoral Tribunal or TSE), would not normally test the country’s young democracy. However, Guatemala currently faces challenges stemming from a serious political crisis arising from corruption allegations lodged against the country’s senior leadership by the attorney general and the U.N.-supported International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

The crisis began with charges against Vice President Roxanna Baldetti who resigned last May and is now under arrest.  To date, 12 members of President Otto Pérez Molina’s cabinet have stepped down.  Pérez Molina has also been implicated in the investigations, but has so far maintained his innocence. During the past week, Guatemala’s prominent business group, the Comité Coordinador de Asociaciones Agrícolas, Comerciales, Industriales y Financieras (Coordinating Committee For Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial And Financial Associations or CACIF), the Roman Catholic Church, and the Guatemalan Bar Association joined in calling for his resignation.  Massive but largely peaceful street protests have taken place during the past two weeks in almost every major city. 

Presidential Candidates

Against this backdrop, 14 political parties have nominated presidential candidates: 

Businessman and former congressman Manuel Baldizón of the Libertad Democrática Renovada (Renewed Democratic Liberty or LIDER) ticket (currently leading in public opinion surveys with 26.2 percent of the voters, according to a recent poll conducted by Felipe Noguera Consultores);

Television personality and movie producer Jimmy Morales of the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (National Convergence Front or FCN) party (following closely at 23.9 percent); and

Wife of former president Alvaro Colom, Sandra Torres of the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (National Unity of Hope or UNE) party (currently ranked third at 14.1 percent).

Other contenders (all polling less than 10 percent at this writing) include: 

Mario Estrada, Secretary General of the Unión del Cambio Nacional (National Change Union or UCN) party;

Congressman Anibal Garcia representing the Movimiento Nueva República (New Republic Movement or MNR);

Radio and TV journalist Mario David García Velásquez of President Pérez Molina’s Partido Patriota (Patriotic Party or PP); 

Former penitentiary director Alejandro Giammattei of the FUERZA (Force) party;

Economist Roberto González of the Compromiso, Renovación y Orden (Commitment, Renewal and Order or CREO) party;

Entrepreneur Juan Gutierrez Strauss, of the Partido de Avanzada Nacional (National Advancement Party or PAN);

Jose Angel López, representing Encuentro por Guatemala (Encounter for Guatemala or EG);

Congressman Luis Pérez Martínez of the Partido Republicano Institucional (Institutional Republican Party or PRI);

Zury Ríos Sosa, the daughter of former president General Efrain Rios Montt, representing the Visión con Valores (Vision with Values or ViVa) party;

Former student activist and guerrilla combatant Miguel Angel Sandoval of the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (National Revolutionary Unity or UNRG-MAIZ) and the Movimiento Politico Winaq (Winaq Political Movement or WINAQ) party, also representing four major indigenous groups; and

Former bank president Lizardo Sosa López of the Todos (All) party. 

Elections at a Glance

Evidenced by their massive street demonstrations and accompanying statements of civil society organizations, Guatemalans seem eager for a break with the status quo. With 53.7 percent of the population living below the poverty line according to the World Bank, and scandals that have decreased public confidence in the current crop of politicians, average citizens want changes that will improve their quality of life while holding elected leaders accountable for their actions and stewardship of public resources.  Last year, Guatemala ranked 115 out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, and it has the fifth highest homicide rate in the world, with 39 per 100,000 persons according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime.  

One political challenge in particular may hinder effective articulation of that desire—the absence of well-defined political parties that represent voters. In fact, there are 28 registered parties, but many of them represent personal followings to which candidate and voter loyalty is tenuous.  Guatemalan politicians also tend to jump from one party to another in a phenomenon called transfuguísmo. This phenomenon, observable also in some other countries, generally hampers efforts to stabilize party leadership, consolidate party identities, create meaningful platforms, and produce incentives for citizens to join parties and form constituencies that can hold candidates accountable.  Overall, it tends to inject greater uncertainty into the democratic process.

While neither the protesters nor the winners of the upcoming general elections will likely succeed in completely addressing the deep-rooted challenges the country has faced with corruption and impunity, poverty, and violence and crime, the September 6 elections will demonstrate the public’s desire to make choices and to be consulted.

Up to now, Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal has enforced campaign finance regulations, issuing sanctions and suspending political parties for non-compliance with the law, which no previous election commission had done before. Yet with a close presidential race in the offing, the Tribunal will face a contentious season.  The Consortium for Electoral and Political Processes (CEPPS), funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), is supporting the development of Tribunal’s capacity to counter political violence and regulate campaign finance. CEPPS partners include the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), the International Republican Institute (IRI), and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI).  

IRI in Guatemala

In light of the upcoming general elections, IRI is also supporting municipalities on peace and nonviolence initiatives to mitigate the risks for political-electoral violence and illicit financing of electoral campaigns. Focusing on traditionally marginalized civil society groups, including women, youth and LGBTI individuals, IRI is utilizing its community organizing training modules to strengthen their participation in the electoral process and in daily civic life.

Since 1993, IRI has worked at the local and national levels in Guatemala, helping to strengthen the institutional capacities of political parties, elected officials and civil society leaders to enhance public administration and overall governance. IRI has emerged as a leading local governance partner, having supported 48 communities across the country. Since 2014, IRI has worked with municipalities to support the recently announced national prevention policy overseen by the Unidad para la Prevención Comunitaria de la Violencia (Community Violence Prevention Unit, UPCV) by helping citizens form local municipal security commissions have a voice in community policing efforts. IRI’s governance programming also includes Smart Governance, a program to help municipalities and citizens leverage new technologies for more inclusive, efficient and responsive development outcomes. IRI promotes women’s political participation through IRI’s Women’s Democracy Network (WDN) chapter in Guatemala, as well as youth as agents of change via the Institute’s new Youth Democracy Lab, which debuted in 2014. 

To read part two of the Guatemala Pre-Election Series click here