AS/COA Online - Guatemala Readies for Vote after Troubled Campaign Cycle

He may not win in the first round, but Otto Pérez Molina polls well ahead of other contenders in the race for Guatemala’s presidency. As the Central American country prepares for a September 11 presidential and legislative vote, a poll published September 7 by Borge and Associates and Guatemalan daily El Periódico gives the Patriotic Party (PP) candidate 48.9 percent of voter intention—a 30 percent advantage over his top rival, Manuel Baldizón of the Renewed Democratic Freedom (Líder) party. The poll puts Pérez Molina short of the requisite 50 percent plus one vote needed to avoid a November 6 runoff. No candidate has won during the first-round vote since Guatemala implemented a two-round system in 1985, though nearly all Guatemala’s first-round winners have gone on to win runoffs. Still, observers see Pérez Molina’s expansive poll lead as stemming, in part, from the lack of a governing-party candidate and they lament that the electoral process has been marred by campaign-finance irregularities, as well as violence.

In fact, it’s Pérez’s tough talk about a crackdown on violence that helped him make a name for himself when he lost to current President Álvaro Colom during the 2007 election. At the time, Pérez pledged to use a mano dura—“firm hand”—against rising crime. The platform caused unease for some voters, given Pérez Molina’s history as a top military official during Guatemala’s brutal three-decade civil war. Officers under his command during that time have since been jailed. Although concerns that he may be linked to human rights abuses continue to cast a shadow over his political career, he has never been indicted, and emphasizes his role as a negotiator in the 1996 peace treaty. While the PP continues to use a clenched fist in its logo, Rogelio Núñez writes for Infolatam that Pérez Molina appears to have learned from the missteps of his last run, when he centered his campaign on security alone. This time around, the conservative candidate expanded his platform to stress the need for economic growth and pledged to continue successful social programs carried out under the current administration.

Still, international media coverage attributes Pérez Molina’s zero-tolerance attitude toward crime as the main reason for his political success this time around. With a murder rate of over 40 per 100,000 people, Guatemala ranks as one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Nonetheless, that alarming rate actually represents a 7 percent decrease since Colom took office, as reported by Central American Business Intelligence and Plaza Pública. However, the president’s governing party can do little to capitalize on that improvement. First Lady Sandra Torres was the candidate for a coalition made up of two of the country’s biggest parties—Colom’s National Unity of Hope and the Grand National Alliance (UNE-GANA). But the Guatemalan constitutional court banned her from the race on the grounds that close relatives of a sitting president cannot run for president. Her attempts to legitimize her candidacy by divorcing Colom failed. With the second-most-popular candidate off the ballot, Pérez Molina has only been able to strengthen his position in the race.

The drama surrounding Torres’ canceled candidacy was not the only incident to tarnish Guatemala’s 2011 election. Sadly, at least 35 candidates or activists connected to campaigns have been murdered. Central American Politics blog outlines why it’s been a “trying campaign,” from the parties’ refusal to adhere to the legal start of the campaign season to the fact that the likely second-place finisher Baldizón offered $61,000 each to legislators who would switch to his party. On top of that, both Pérez Molina’s PP and the UNE-GANA exceeded campaign spending caps and Líder is expected to as well, reports Hanna Stone in The Christian Science Monitor. Mirador Electoral, an election-monitoring body, has warned about a lack of transparency over campaign funding, given that the large sums spent come largely from private donors and could be illicit. As The Economist puts it, “Guatemalans can only guess who has paid for the election posters lining their streets.”

Learn more

  • Website and Facebook page of Guatemala’s electoral agency.
  • Mirador Electoral is a coalition of NGOs monitoring Guatemala’s 2011 vote, publishing information on electoral transparency and campaign funding while offering crowdsourcing tools to denounce election irregularities.
  • The Black Box offers an analysis of Twitter coverage of the election.
  • The OAS Electoral Observation Mission release regarding installation of electoral observers.
  • In an Americas Quarterly web exclusive, Kara Andrade and Nic Wirtz look at the expanding political role of women in Guatemala.