Guatemalas elections settle few of its problems

Almost 6 million Guatemalans voted Sept. 9 for a new president, vice president, 158 parliamentary deputies and 322 mayors. Fourteen political parties were involved in electioneering that began on May 2. Voting in Guatemala is mandatory.

Results on the presidential vote, with 95 percent of the ballots counted by Sept. 11, favored Alvaro Colom, who with 28.4 percent of the vote was over 4 percentage points ahead of Oscar Perez Molina, presidential candidate of the right-wing Patriot Party.

Colom ran as head of the National Union of Hope Party, which casts itself as social-democratic. The candidate of incumbent President Oscar Berger’s party, the Grand National Alliance, was running third.

Vote tabulation was hampered by delays in rural areas deluged by rains from Hurricane Felix. With a majority of 50 percent or more required for election victory, the leading two candidates will face a runoff vote on Nov. 4.

During the campaign, Colom stressed crime fighting and called for strengthened security forces and judicial reform. Formerly associated with guerrilla-leaders-turned-candidates-for-office, Colom is an engineer and businessman.

Perez Molina, a retired general trained in the United States, ran on upping the police force by 50 percent and reinstating the death penalty.

The election story began long before the voting. With the candidates focusing on crime, trade and foreign investment, and condemning poverty, one manifestation of the country’s social distress — political violence — intruded in a big way.

By voting time, violence had reached a crescendo, with over 50 party activists or family members murdered since May. Just before the election, President Berger’s government deployed 11,800 soldiers and 19,500 police to cities and small towns to contain the violence, or so it said.

In a more general context, about 6,000 Guatemalans were murdered last year, and 271 women and 244 children killed this year between January and July.

No murder suspects in the political killings had been identified or arrested by election time. Ironically enough, after two decades of trying, Guatemala had instituted reforms in 2006 aimed at removing criminal activities, bribery and fraud from the election process.

Election observers from the European Union and Organization of American States expressed anxiety over the turmoil.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, an indigenous woman, ran as presidential candidate for her “Gathering for Guatemala” party. She shunned radical social proposals for fear of being “burned” by right-wing forces and finished sixth in the polling. Guatemala’s population is 70 percent indigenous.

Left-leaning political parties played a small role in the elections. In particular, Miguel Ángel Sandoval and other former left-wing guerrilla leaders running for office gained few votes.

Analysts suggested, however, the presence of a “silent” left vote, immobilized by fear of ongoing violence and memories of 200,000 killed in Guatemala over four decades of army and paramilitary domination, aided by the CIA.

Andrés Cabanas, writing in Pueblos, maintains that the left carries more weight in Guatemala than the election results indicate. He points to a succession of recent social struggles, including indigenous mobilizations, campaigns for women’s rights, protests against the U.S.-fostered “free trade” treaty, and fights against foreign-owned mine operators.

Consistent with electioneering carried out by establishment forces jostling for power, the parties spent the equivalent of $41 million on publicity, with narco-traffickers and criminal elements reportedly helping out.

Condemning elections that ignore Mayan demands, Máximo Ba Tiul, quoted by Prensa Libre, described a “democracy in crisis, taken over and led by the corrupt, the military, the elites and neoliberalism.”

The dimensions of social catastrophe in Guatemala are clear enough. Over 56 percent of the people live in poverty, 21.5 percent of them in “extreme poverty.” Rates of unemployment and illiteracy are high.

Over 70,000 Guatemalans work in 184 foreign-owned maquiladora textile factories where pay is low, the workday 12-14 hours long and unions are prohibited. Some 80 percent of the workers are young women, whose bathroom breaks and possible pregnancies are closely monitored by management.

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