Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Electing for Forgetting the Past - Guatemalan Elections 2011

As many of you know, the final round of the elections in Guatemala took place on
November 6, 2011. Tension was high leading up to this date given that the two
contenders, Manuel Baldizon and Otto Perez Molina, represent right-wing interests the former calling for the return of the death penalty. In the case of Perez Molina, he is well-known for his leadership in the Guatemalan intelligence branch of the army during the mid 90s and was on the CIA payroll. Before this, during the height of the violence 1982-1983), he operated the military base in Nebaj, Quiche. There are several allegations against him regarding the detainment, torture and disappearance of several people, some of whom Breaking the Silence, through their work with the Coordination of International Accompaniment in Guatemala (ACOGUATE) have accompanied over the past several years as part of the genocide cases. Also, at the beginning of this year, a case was filed against him regarding the illegal detainment, torture, disappearance and murder of Efrain Bámaca, a guerilla commander whose disappearance and murder remains in impunity.

Two hours after the polls closed throughout the country, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (Tribunal Suprema Electoral – TSE) called the vote in favour of former General Otto Perez Molina with 56% of the votes. It is important to note that voter turn out was under 50%. In other words, 50% of registered voters (there are 7,000,000 registered voters in Guatemala from a total national population of 14,000,000) or just over 3,000,000 people voted. To put it in a different way, 17% of the total population of Guatemala voted. Voter turn out in the second round is often much lower given the costs of travelling to voting centres and the fact that local mayors and congress are already elected during the first round. Despite the fact that since the previous elections, efforts have been made by the TSE to decentralize voting centres so that people who live in villages do not have to travel
long distances to vote, the recent rains that once again washed out roads and caused large-scale structural damage also destroyed many schools and community centres originally slated to be used as voting centres. As a result, many people had to travel into the larger municipal centres in order to cast their vote.

The first round of votes held on September 11thwere characterized by high levels of
violence, intimidation and allegations of fraud at the local, municipal level. As a result, five municipalities had to re-initiate their vote for mayor during the second round. According to the official press, this repetition was carried out with measured calmness throughout the five regions. I spoke with people in San Lucas Toliman where our partners, the Comite Campesino del Altiplano (CCDA) are located and they said things were fairly calm. Partido Patriota, the party of Otto Perez Molina, won the mayoral vote there which was what the agitators of the previous round wanted.

Manuel Baldizon´s party, Lider, won in the majority of departments with Partido Patriota winning only 7 highly populated departments including the department of Guatemala. It will be important to watch what happens in the departments where Lider won over the next couple of months although some analysts argue that the support for Lider would have been less if the party was up against the National Unity for Hope (Unidad Nacional de Esperanza - UNE) which currently holds the presidency under Alvaro Colom, as opposed to Partido Patriota. Also, it is interesting to note that Baldizon did not give his official speech on election night. Normally, both candidates give their final speeches following the declaration of the winner of the elections. Balidzon cast his vote in the northern department of Peten and indicated that he was going to return to the capital to wait for the
results - which he never did. According to the pattern in Guatemala, the candidate who comes in second in the elections is often elected president four years later so this will not be the last we see of right-wing candidate Baldizon.

One of the municipalities where the municipal elections were repeated was Chinique,
Quiche. As a TV reporter was coming back from the town after covering the elections,
he arrived in Santa Cruz del Quiche, the site of the main military barracks of the Quiche region, an area where over two thirds of the massacres took place during the violence. At 5am, he and his camera man were attacked by body guards of Congressman Mario Rivera originally from Rios Montt´s political party, the Guatemalan Republican Front (Frente Republicano Guatemalteco – FRG and currently with UNE. The recent news coverage about this attack is more focused on his recuperation and the fact that his wounds were not serious enough to file charges against the body guards than questions about the motives behind the attack or Mario Rivera´s involvement.

In terms of the capital city, there was a notable increase in ‘security’ forces in the form of the police and army presence. The ‘combined forces’ (police and military ‘fuerzas combinadas’) were peppered throughout the capital on the days leading up to the elections and especially on election day. Reports from friends of BTS who travelled around the city, indicated that the streets were ominously quiet.

During its elections coverage, TV news reiterated that the TSE was extremely efficient taking less than two hours to count the majority of the votes. They failed to mention or even allude to the plethora of complaints that were emitted following the first round where it took an entire week to post finalized figures. It is clear that the media is painting a picture of organized, ‘democratic’ Guatemala with their new peace president who signed the peace accords in 1996. They have referred to him as ‘el presidente de la paz’ (the peace president); however, they continue to refer to him as General Perez Molina as opposed to ‘President Elect’ which is the typical way of addressing someone after they have been elected president and before they officially take office. Nonetheless, today, two days after the elections, Perez Molina is also being referred to in local newspapers as President Elect.

Meanwhile, current president Alvaro Colom, who will be carrying out government
transition meetings with Otto Perez Molina over the next few weeks, just announced in an interview in the news daily El Periodico that he will continue to support his political party, UNE, but will be turning his attention to work on ‘regional security’ issues. Following these elections, the UNE has lost significant political control over important regions where resource extraction, hydroelectric, African palm and other lucrative commercial industries are highly contested and, profitable.

For those who can speak Spanish, there is an excellent website albedrio.org that will no doubt be coming out with several analytical essays from about the elections. Authors to look out for include: Gustavo Porras, Marielos Monzon, Sandino Asturias, Claudia Samayoa (who visited BTS at the 2011 AGM) among others.