Guatemala: Early Start to Election Campaign*
By Danilo Valladares
Guatemala’s election campaign got off to a controversial and premature start, with an evangelical pastor, a military officer, a former president, the president’s wife and the daughter of a general who led a coup emerging as presidential hopefuls, although three of them face legal barriers to their candidacy, according to experts.
“The president’s wife cannot run for president,” lawyer Mario Fuentes told IPS. “Article 186 of the constitution clearly states she cannot stand for this office because of her degree of affinity with the president.”
Sandra Torres, wife of social democratic President Álvaro Colom, as well as former president Álvaro Arzú (1996-2000) and Zury Ríos, the daughter of former dictator general Efraín Ríos Montt, are considering running for the country’s next president, who will take office January 2012.
“Zury Ríos is also banned by Article 186, because she is related to a general who staged a coup, while Arzú cannot stand for president because Article 187 of the constitution expressly bans presidential reelection” at any time, the expert said.
Guatemalans will go to the polls September 2011 to elect the president and vice president for the next four years, as well as 153 lawmakers for the single-chamber Congress, 20 representatives to the Central American Parliament, and 333 local governments.
Eligibility to run
The controversy so far is centred on who is or is not eligible to run for president. But beyond the letter of constitutional law, there are precedents which are raising concerns among Guatemalans.
As unlikely as it seemed, Ríos Montt was a presidential candidate in 2003, although the constitution expressly banned him for having led a military coup in March 1982, and having governed as dictator for 16 months, a period of massive human rights abuses.
Article 186 of the Guatemalan constitution states that the commanders of a coup d’état cannot become president, nor those who have assumed the position of head of government after overthrowing the constitutional order. However, after a legal battle that was marked by numerous irregularities, Ríos Montt did become a candidate, although he was defeated.
Fuentes said this precedent should not be a cause for concern. “The ruling that allowed Ríos Montt to stand has been expunged from constitutional jurisprudence, so it cannot be cited as a precedent,” he said.
In spite of the impediments, the presidential hopefuls continue to campaign. “Retomemos el camino” (Let’s get back on course) say the publicity spots for ex president Arzú, head of the rightwing Unionist Party and present mayor of Guatemala City, who has openly stated his intention of returning to power.
Meanwhile the conservative Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) proclaimed Zury Ríos their candidate. On Nov. 10 she said she would seek the support of women voters to achieve her goal.
President Colom’s wife, who is highly influential in the governing National Union of Hope (UNE), has not publicly stated her intention to run, but her opponents take it as read, pointing to her frequent appearances on television at official events.
Roxana Baldetti of the opposition Patriot Party said Torres is using the entire state apparatus to launch her candidacy, which she called “illegal and immoral.”
Another constitutional lawyer, Roberto Villeda, concurred that Torres, Arzú and Ríos are specifically banned from standing as presidential candidates by the constitution.
Constitution and Electoral Law
The 1985 constitution, amended in 1993, closed a chapter of Guatemalan history marked by coups and dictatorships with the return to democracy in 1986, and laid the foundations for the pacification of the country. To this end, it fixed four-year presidential terms that could not be extended, and included specific measures to prevent perpetuation in power and coups.
Further controversy has arisen because the present virtual campaign by presidential hopefuls is also forbidden. The electoral law states campaigning can only commence when the Supreme Electoral Tribunal calls for elections, in May 2011.
But other presidential hopefuls, like retired general Otto Pérez of the Patriot Party, who is leading in the polls, and evangelical pastor Harold Caballeros, of Vision with Values (VIVA), have also increased their media presence to promote their aspirations.
Thus the media are broadcasting ever more frequent spots promoting the various presidential hopefuls, while huge billboards along the main avenues in the capital depict the most prominent political personalities.
Not all of this is negative. Political analyst José Dávila told IPS that Guatemala is “slowly” moving towards political maturity.
“Fraud and political repression are no longer major issues, but we need the parties to address national problems with a more serious focus, and greater citizen participation, not only in elections but also in government programmes and in elected positions,” he said.
Quota laws to ensure the participation of women, direct election of lawmakers, and strict regulation of the funding sources for political parties are changes necessary for political progress, the expert said.
Political analyst Miguel Ángel Balcárcel told IPS that, furthermore, citizen participation is crucial for monitoring the work of political parties.
“Parties do not change by themselves; they need a context where they meet with more reflective citizens who won’t fall for their jingles. This is a backward society in terms of building citizenship,” he said.
Gerardo López, a young leader in the VIVA party, told IPS that part of their political strategy is promoting structural political changes, like direct election of lawmakers rather than voting for lists of candidates, debating the funding of political parties, and reducing the number of lawmakers to 80.
“We think there is more of an opportunity with new parties that have not become stale and worn-out like the parties represented in Congress,” he concluded.