Presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections were held in Guatemala on September 11, 2011 with a presidential runoff scheduled for November 6. The President of Guatemala is elected for a four year term and is not eligible for reelection, and neither are his relatives. He serves with a Vice-President. The unicameral Congress has 158 deputies, of which 31 are elected through a national list and the rest in single-member districts of roughly 80,000 people. Also up were the country’s seat in the Central American Parliament and the control of the country’s 333 municipalities.
Guatemala is a poor and troubled country, marked by a long history of flagrant social and ethnic inequalities, poverty, military rule and political violence. Today, over half of Guatemalans live under the poverty line. As in the past, the dominant political and economic elites are almost exclusively well-off white landowners or businessmen. Whites or mestizos, descendants of European (Spanish) colonizers, make up roughly 60% of the country’s populations. 40% of the country’s population are natives, mostly Maya. The country’s large native population has traditionally been victims of discrimination and violence, and are largely absent from the country’s political and economic elites. For a long time, Guatemala was the perfect example of the ‘banana republic’: the American-owned United Fruits Company (UFCO) owned tons of land in the country, most of which was not cultivated. The UFCO and Washington usually controlled the government of Guatemala, which oftentimes were led by right-wing military officers who were quite pliant. In 1954, the CIA and UFCO had the left-wing reformist president, Jacobo Arbenz, removed from power and replaced by a series of pro-American and anti-communist military rulers. Military rule lasted until 1986, and a civil war between the military and vicious paramilitaries against left-wing guerrillas lasted from 1960 till 1996. Today, Guatemala is wracked by violence and a Mexican-influence drug cartel war. Guatemala’s homicide rate, 42/100,000 is the fourth-highest in the world (in comparison, the Mexican homicide rate is 18 and the American homicide rate is 5).
The left, which had been largely shut out of power in Guatemala since 1954, took power in 2007 with the election of Álvaro Colom to the presidency against right-wing retired general Otto Pérez Molina. Colom defeated Pérez Molina with 52.8% against 47.2% even though most polls had showed the retired general in the lead. Since Álvaro Colom was not allowed to seek reelection, he and his party (the National Unity for Hope, UNE) supported his wife, Sandra Torres. Since relatives of the incumbent cannot seek election, the two filed for divorce in order for Torres to run. Her candidacy, however, was refused by the courts. This means that the incumbent left-wing government has no presidential candidate.
The front-runner was Otto Pérez Molina of the Patriotic Party (PP) and the 2007 runner-up. Pérez Molina is a retired military general and former head of military intelligence. Pérez Molina is perceived by critics as being an authoritarian hardliner, and some accuse him of torture and human rights abuses in the 90s though no cases of torture or abuse have ever been proven. Pérez Molina ran, like in 2007, as a hardline law-and-order (‘iron fist’) candidate, advocating the use of military force against drug cartels. He also promised more social spending, though that is probably a pledge which in practice would be much tempered because of his close association with big business and the Guatemalan economic elites.
In the absence of a left-wing candidate, it was Manuel Baldizón who emerged as the main runner-up. Baldizón is a very wealthy businessman and hotel tycoon, who is also right-wing. In 2006, he joined Colom’s UNE but in 2008 he led a large group of UNE dissidents to form a centrist party, LIDER. But his campaign has taken a very populist and slightly insane tone. He promises more social spending, social programs and fighting poverty. On the other hand, he is also very hardline on crime: he supports the use of the death penalty, in fact would like to see executions televised. In the insane repertoire, he said that if elected the national football team would somehow qualify for the World Cup (it has never qualified). It is likely he took up much of the fledgling left-wing vote, likely through the influence of his stashes and stashes of money.
Other candidates included 72-year old right-wing academic Eduardo Suger, Mario Estrada, Harold Caballeros and Nobel laureate and Mayan rights activist Rigoberta Menchú (perhaps the closest to a left-wing candidate).
With 98% reporting:
Otto Pérez Molina (PP) 36.06%
Manuel Baldizón (LIDER) 23.28%
Eduardo Suger (CREO) 16.26%
Mario Estrada (UCN) 8.62%
Harold Caballeros (VIVA-EG) 6.09%
Rigoberta Menchú (WINAQ-URNG-MAIZ-ANN) 3.28%
Otto Pérez Molina was widely expected to win, and he did, but he only took 36% and failed to win an absolute majority which is needed to win outright by the first round. This could reflect unease about his military past, but more likely it is the result of the success of right-populist businessman Manuel Baldizón who will face Pérez Molina in the November runoff. Yet, despite Pérez Molina’s poor showing, he remains the favourite. Votes cast for Eduardo Suger, who placed third, are said to be likely to be cast for Pérez Molina in November. His tough stance on crime is popular with voters in a country where criminality, drug wars and gang violence is the most important political issue even ahead of poverty and the economy.
Manuel Baldizón pretty obviously took the left-wing vote: in the south, he performed best in departments where Colom’s UNE had done well in 2007. In the legislative election, LIDER (the third force in the incumbent Congress) won only 8.87% against 22.63% for the governing centre-left UNE-GANA. The PP won the most votes with 26.67% (it won 15.9% in 2007) but will probably fall quite short of an overall majority though it won’t change that Congress is the preserve of the rather conservative economic elites of the country.