Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

From Guatemala. A Preview of the Presidential Election on Sunday

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Guatemalans head to the polls again tomorrow for the second round of their 2011 presidential elections that pits LIDER’s Manuel Baldizón against Patriot Party’s Otto Pérez Molina, a former army general during the height of the country’s civil war in the 1980s.

During the first round held on September 11, Pérez Molina secured a 13 percent lead over his rival, but not enough to ensure the 50 percent required by national law to claim victory.

In a surprisingly muted secondary phase of campaigning, Pérez Molina is still the favorite to win, with a 42 to 58 percent voter base according to a poll on Thursday in Prensa Libre, one of the leading national newspapers.

Iduvina Hernandez Batres, Director of Seguridad en Democracia paints a grim picture of the election. She said, “We are living in a state of risk in Guatemala. And with the chapina curse. That curse is that we have to choose between two criminals.”

The rise of Baldizón, a populist right-leaning candidate with alleged ties to narco traffickers, has been meteoric. In July, he was only polling with 4 percent of the vote before eventually finishing second to long-time front-runner Peréz Molina. Since the first round Baldizón has successfully brought together 11 parties, an unprecedented move in Guatemalan politics, with Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu vying for his support on nationally broadcast campaign ads. Some experts, however, warn the Baldizón alliance is paper thin and with a potential win Congress will force a very rapid institutional paralysis.

“I think the parallel is in the previous election between Otto Perez Molina and Alvaro Colom who will later became the president of Guatemala,” said Luis Mack, a sociologist at Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), a school of social sciences in Guatemala City. “He [Baldizón] is a candidate who comes out of nowhere.”

Baldizón’s promises to pay Bono15, an additional monthly salary, that is already paid on two occasions. Once in July and the other in December to all Guatemalans and to provide millions of dollars for disaster funds, draws much support.

While polls in Guatemala are a contested method for predicting results, the pattern of previous second rounds (the first round saw a record 7.5 million exercise their vote) bringing in 50 percent fewer voters, is expected to maintain Pérez Molina’s lead. Also Guatemala’s political history, since the 1996 Peace Accords instituted free democratic elections, has been for candidates that finished second in a previous election to rise to the presidency the next election. Current President Colom ran three tries before he eventually became head of State.

“In general there is also a certain disenchantment in many citizens because none of the candidates who went on to second round represents the feelings of the majority of the population,” said Mack. “There are many Guatemalans who feel they do not really choose although we are voting.”

Batres Hernandez observed, “Both Pérez Molina and Baldizón represent the darkest face of Guatemalan society.”

Should Perez Molina win, he would be the first former general to democratically become president of a country that has centuries of experience of military rule.

“Pérez Molina has a slightly better picture (than Baldizón), he did not promise as much (as Baldizón), unlike four years ago when he was so arrogant he lost,” said Mack. “How much capacity will a soldier have to govern a country as complex as this?”

Even amid warnings from the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE), Guatemala’s independent election overseeing elections, on Friday Guatemala closed its millionaire campaign, with $65 million spent since May on the national elections, unprecedented in a country where half the population lives in poverty. Overspending culminated in fines and an advertising ban on the Patriot Party.

Some citizens are fearing the worst scenario for Sunday’s election will result in violence if there isn’t enough of a margin of victory from the winning candidate and that victory is contested.

“The stability of the TSE and the stability of Guatemala depends on how much difference there is between first and second,” Mack said.

The next president of Guatemala will have tough decisions to make. A weak economy has not been helped by a second successive destructive rainy season. The tropical storm E-12 brought chaos, killing scores of people, leaving thousands homeless and the country’s infrastructure is lacking a tax base to meet its needs. Guatemala’s increasing drug trafficking problems and the corruption that plagues different sectors of society as it confronts those problems, are just a few of the things the new president will face when he assumes office in January.

“They enter office so indebted and with so many commitments, they have little capacity to make the big transformation,” said Mack.

Note: Check back to AQ Online for a post-election Web Exclusive by Nic Wirtz and Kara Andrade.

*Nic Wirtz and Kara Andrade are contributing bloggers to AQ Online. Nic is a freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years. His work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost, and he is editor for the website Vozz. Kara Andrade is a Central American-based freelance photojournalist and multimedia producer whose work has been featured in Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, the Christian Science Monitor, France24, the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, and the Oakland Tribune.

Tags: Election, Guatemala
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