05 November 2007

Guatemalan Elections

After roughly a year of flyers, radio jingles, rallies, and outright gifts, the Guatemalan election season is over. Guatemalan elections have a dozen similarities and differences with the United States election season.

Basics of Guatemalan Elections
To understand elections in the U.S., one must understand electoral colleges, the difference between the House and the Senate, and, until recently, be able to contrast perforated and hanging chad. In Guatemala, there's a House of Representatives, but not a Senate. Elections come in two rounds: During the first round, mayors, Congressmen, and Presidents are on the ballot. Everyone gets elected that day but Presidents, who have a second round a month or two later, when the top two presidential candidates have a second vote.

The Political Parties
Guatemala's system of political parties is incredibly weak. While in the United States we complain of an impenetrable two-party system, Guatemala's political parties rise and fall with the tides. Never has one political party won the presidency more than once: On the contrary, any political party that wins the presidency is considered to have the "kiss of death," and shrinks until it ceases to exist. The party of the third to last president lost its last few representatives in Congress this election season and disbanded. What remain the same, however, is the people who run these parties. Often the party strategists, and even the presidential candidates, will come up election after election under different party names.
Even after the elections, Congressmen politicians change parties (usually due to bribes from other parties). Within two days of the congressional elections, a dozen of the new elects changed parties.

"The ____ Vote"
In the United States, there's a long list of special demographics, from racial blocks, such as "The black vote," "the Hispanic vote," and so on, to single-issue voters, such as "The family values vote," "The pro-life vote," "The women's rights vote," and so on. In Guatemala, such voting demographics are significantly less important to both campaign styles and the ultimate turnout. Special demographics sometimes are divided between Catholic and Evangelicals, those within the capital city and outside, and, to a lesser extent, indigenous vs. ladino. Of these divisions, Strict Evangelicals and those living near the capital were the only two groups seriously considered cohesive groups. Generally, geographic division can be considered a more vital. Past presidential candidates have lost for not paying enough attention to one of the three major geographic regions: the cowboy-ladino east, the indigenous highlands, or the urban capital region. In yesterday's vote, the winner captured every department outside of the urban capital region, and lost every one within.

What's in a president?
While in the United States most voters only come out for the Presidential elections and ignore the rest, the opposite is true in Guatemala. Citizens seem to feel distant from their Presidents, who determine laws and bureaucracies that little affect their daily lives. Mayoral elections, however, are very popular and have a major effect on people's lives. For the first round of elections, which included mayors and Congressman, roughly 5 million citizens voted. For the second round, electing the President from two choices, roused only 1.5 million voters.

The Issues
In the popular and reputable Prensa Libre Newspaper, there was an article yesterday arguing that there has been one primary issue in nearly every presidency since the end of the armed conflict in Guatemala. For the previous president, it was corruption. During the 2007 campaign, it was violence. All of the major candidates had to give significant lip service to how to fight the perceived rising crime in Guatemala. Gangs, drug trafficking, and organized crime have been covering the newspapers for the past few years. The common criticism of the current president has been his in ability to counter crime, particularly in the capital region of the country. More perennial issues include poverty, corruption, and jobs.

The Candidates
To simplify, I'm only going to discuss the two candidates who made it to the general elections in detail. Information is based on what I've read, heard, and found in Wikipedia and the candidate's websites

Ing. Álvaro Colom

Colom comes from a political family from the Capital. His political experience has been as the first Director of a anti-poverty government organization, known as the National Foundation for Peace, and the Minister of the Economy, one of the two largest government departments. He was best known as the second place candidate in the previous presidential election, and was considered an unlikely win due to that connection. He's a center-left candidate who had a rather traditional campaign. During the second round, he garnered support with his slogan, "Intelligence against Violence," to combat his earlier image of not facing the primary issue head on (and to suggest his opponent's lack thereof). He purported himself as the wiser of the two candidates also by widely promoting his Governing Plan, a large document detailing his plans once in office.

General Otto Pérez Molina
Perez was by far the most interesting candidate throughout the election. Leading the younger and smaller "Patriotic Party," He chose the icon of a white clenched fist, and making his slogan "Mano Dura," or strong hand. The icon and slogan had been used before in Latin America by candidates of intolerant regimes that could safely be called dictators who imprisoned hundreds of citizens in jail as suspected criminals. The firm stance resonated well with many in the urban capital who felt that their country had fallen into the hands of politicians that were inept in fighting crime or in bed with criminals. Pérez led an impressive campaign, with radio jingles that were considered responsible for winning the "children's vote" throughout the nation. His campaign was based on simplifying positions and clearly promoting his platform without bogging down in details. His later motto, "firm hand, head, and heart," sought to soften his image. Pérez easily promoted himself as the outsider to political corruption, given that his daughter was wounded by masked gunmen within days of forming his party. The same day, another woman was murdered after lunching with the wife of Pérez. Pérez, a graduate of the infamous School of the Americas, had served as the nation's director of intelligence and army inspector-general. He was one of the generals involved in the coup d'etat of dictator Rios Montt in the early 90's.

Rigoberta Menchú
Of international interest was that Nobel prize-winner Rigoberta Menchú also ran during the first round of elections, to win only 5% of the vote. Menchú, an indigenous woman who fought peacefully during the armed conflict, gained international attention for her book describing the genocide that occurred here. Breaking with tradition, she refused to support either candidate for the second round, claiming that she suffered from "black campaign" tactics from both parties. from both of them during her candidacy.

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