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Elections in Guatemala: condemned to repeat history?



Jorge Santos is General Coordinator of the International Center for Human Rights Research (CIIDH), CESR’s partner organization in Guatemala. In this blog entry, he looks forward to next Sunday’s presidential elections and voices concerns over what the outcome may mean for normal Guatemalan people.

On September 11 more than 7,300,000 Guatemalans will go to the polls in what is the seventh electoral event since the return of democracy. The country’s democratic life has been influenced by a series of facts producing what could be a distortionary impact on the same event.

As documented by the Commission for Historical Clarification, Guatemala was marked by a 36-year armed conflict that left a legacy of 250,000 direct victims and profound consequences on the society that still have not been rectified. The culmination of said conflict, with the signing of the Peace Accords, marked the beginning of a long and as-yet unfinished process of reform in the political party system. This has degenerated, however, with profound shortcomings leading to greater inequality in participation, thus deepening many of the original causes of the conflict.

This is an atypical electoral event, in that is regarded as the most onerous election campaign yet by some of the political parties. Likewise, both institutional and democratic weakness have contributed, facilitating manipulation by the factional powers in the country. The most notorious issue has been the presidential pretensions of the former First Lady Sandra Torres, who since the government’s first days was the driving force behind social assistance programs which drew opposition from the economic elite and sympathy from broader excluded sectors of the country. The registration of the official party’s candidate took place amid questionable decisions taken by both the bodies charged with the electoral process itself and the Guatemalan courts. From this context has emerged a situation in which the official party for the first time does not have a candidate for the presidency, only presenting contenders for congress and local authorities.

Many believe the official candidate’s non-registration is down to the economic elite’s fear that social policies would be further deepened, to the detriment of their spurious interests. From this perspective, the elite brought about a situation whereby their candidate would be the only option, thus strengthening political power in the executive and legislature, albeit amidst accusations of crimes against humanity and with the presence of organized crime figures among their ranks, especially in terms of party finances. The other candidates, some of them accused of drug trafficking and others of being financed by the Guatemalan oligarchy, leave little margin for those who represent common wellbeing. It is very likely that these facts will lead to disillusion among the citizenry, and will confirm the old refrain: “a people who don’t know their history are condemned to repeat it”.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of CESR