Election Special: Guatemala

Guatemalans vote on September 11 for a new president and parliament.  Will hardliners or leftists triumph?

Ex-generalissimo Otto Pérez Molina, who lost in 2007 to the social democrat Álvaro Colom, is contesting for the presidency once again.  60 year old Pérez Molina is a former intelligence chief has been leading in opinion polls.  There appears to be a swing rightwards underway.  But dark clouds loom, as Mayans and others from El Quiché allege the ex-military man of human rights abuses in 1992.  Indigenous group Waqib Kej have been vocal in their pleas for justice, even petitioning the UN for an inquiry. 

Pérez founded the right-wing Patriotic Party in 2001 which has suffered from sporadic attacks on personnel and supporters.  Aura Marina Salazar Cutzal, an indigenous assistant to the party leader, was assassinated in 2007, and a son and daughter of Perez have been gunned down and wounded by assailants in 2000.  By 2007, the leader claimed eight deaths of party stalwarts at the hands of what he termed "organised crime".

But this is Central America, where politics never runs smoothly.

Pitted against him and his party is a coalition of leftists. Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, an ex-Guerilla movement, has clubbed together with other radicals, socialists and human rightists to back Rigoberta Menchú, a 52-year old K'iche' from - you guessed it - El Quiché.  Menchú has "dedicated her life to publicizing the plight of Guatemala's indigenous peoples who suffered during and after the country's 1960-1996 civil war".  She's a UN Goodwill Ambassador, and, like her opponent this time, lost the presidential election in 2007.

In a twist, Sandra Torres - wife of current president Colom - allegedly got divorced so she could run (to bypass local election rules, it was supposed).  She was thwarted in her bid by the Constitutional Court upholding a ruling by the Supreme Court that she couldn't contest the presidential election. So she's out of the race. Nevertheless, last March The Economist reported, "Guatemala’s first lady, announced last week that she would seek to run in the country’s presidential election this September.  Ms Torres has played a prominent role during the presidency of her husband, Álvaro Colom, heading the government’s anti-poverty programmes.  Many say that behind the scenes she wields even greater influence over her mild-mannered spouse."  It's a clear shame she's prevented from contesting, it seems. 

A viable candidate is populist Congressman Manuel Baldizón, a 41 year old Oxford-educated solicitor and tycoon, married the ex-wife of a liberal Christian Democratic former president, Vinicio Cerezo. Baldizón has youthful charm and vigour, but a penchant for the radical.  He would reinstate the death penalty and televise executions, and make special efforts to boost social programmes and raise incomes. Having been a member from 2006 of National Unity of Hope (UNE) when social democratic Álvaro Colom was president, Baldizón founded his own party, the Renewed Democratic Liberty (LIDER) in 2008.

A physicist and scholar, 72-year old Edouada Sugar is another prospect. He founded a university and is the candidate of the CREO Party. 

At this stage, it appears a foregone conclusion, with Otto Pérez Molina looking almost certain to triumph.  It's likely too that his Patriotic Party, which only garnered 15.91% of the popular vote for Congress in 2007 (and thus 30 out of 158 seats in the parliament), will enhance its support next month.

Guatemala sits on the Pacific seaboard of Central America, lying midway between South America and the US.  Its 109,000 sq miles make it bigger than Hungary or South Korea.  Its population of 14.3m is larger than that of Cambodia or Florida. It's not a totally insignificant place.  Indeed, it sports a bigger GDP than other countries holding free elections in September: Latvia, Malagasy Republic (Madagascar) or Zambia.  What's more, Guatemala's GDP per capita is actually higher than those of Serbia, Uruguay or Costa Rica.

Why?  Well it's got a reasonable sized population, for a start.  And its GDP per capita is US$2,888, similar to Ukraine's or Egypt's.  It's the oil, sugar and petrol it produces - exporting most of it to the consumptive Americans, about 41% of its total.  Since the civil war ended Guatemala has "pursued important reforms and macroeconomic stabilization" programmes, notes the World Factbook. This has drawn in inward investment.  Importantly, Guatemalans remit huge sums to their homeland, stimulating economic activity.

There's resistance to change, however, as the World Factbook notes: " President Colom, in his last year in office, will have (likely faced) opposition to economic reform, particularly over a long-delayed tax reform and an IMF-recommended reform to strengthen the banking sector".

Whether the ex-generalissimo is the man to progress such improvements remains to be seen.

Fissures in Guatemalan society run deep: the rich are ultra-wealthy and impoverished languish at the margins. The healing which took place after the Civil War has yet to reap dividends everywhere. And any widening of rifts will be deplored in Guatemala City, the provinces and among the diaspora.

By October we'll all know which way the wind blew ... towards the Army and vested interests, or in the direction of a rejuvenation of Guatemalan society.

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