The Guatemalan Elections


November 9, 2003, Guatemalan citizens were called on to vote in
the fifth national elections since the reestablishment of “democracy”
in 1985. Voting in Guatemala, a country that has been embroiled
in civil war for most of the last half century, is both a privilege
and a risk. Thirty political leaders and activists have already
been murdered during the most violent electoral campaign in Guatemala’s
short history of democratic government.  

began to form outside of voting stations well before 6:00 AM, as
Guatemalans waited for hours to cast their vote in what was to be
a day of unprecedented levels of civic participation. For many Guatemalans,
these elections were not about choosing the best candidates, but
rather about defeating the presidential candidacy of former military
dictator, Efraín Ríos Montt. 

1982 Ríos Montt, popularly known as “the General,”
seized power in a bloody coup d’etat at the height of the 36-year
civil war. During the General’s 18-month rule, he oversaw the
infamous “scorched earth” counterinsurgency campaign that
exterminated the populations of over 400 indigenous villages in
the name of anticommunism. An estimated 19,000 largely non-combatant
civilians were murdered and hundreds of thousands more were forced
to flee to Mexico. 

this election cycle, the General and his governing political party,
the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), mounted an extensive electoral
campaign of bribery, coercion, and physical intimidation. But neither
the fear of Ríos Montt’s legacy, the widespread threats
of violent repercussions if the General lost, nor the FRG’s
efforts to buy votes would keep most citizens from braving the dangers
and voting their conscience. “The massive and unprecedented
participation of voters succeeded in neutralizing the fears that
many sectors had of a possible fraud or a day filled with violence
organized by the ex-paramilitary groups,” pronounced one magistrate
of the Supreme Elections Tribunal. Voters, emboldened by the massive
turnout, prophetically mocked the General as he cast his. As the
day progressed, administrative disorganization, an antiquated civil
registry database, and paralyzing congestion at some voting stations
proved to be the most significant impediments to citizens attempting
to vote. By early the next morning it was clear that the General
would not be going to the second and final run-off round of the
presidential elections.

defeat of Ríos Montt and his FRG saved the fragile Guatemalan
democracy from disintegrating once again into a quasi-democratic
dictatorship. Still, these elections have not dramatically altered
the political landscape in this violent, corrupt, and impoverished
Central American republic. The old oligarchy of Guatemalan business
elites connected to the military and organized crime remains in
control of the government. 

A Candidacy 20 Years in the Making 


Montt had worked to bring about what he considers his preordained
destiny to govern Guatemala ever since falling from power in 1983.
A clause in the 1985 constitution barring former military rulers
from the presidency has since kept Ríos Montt from regaining
power. After two failed attempts to challenge this constitutional
prohibition in the early 1990s, Ríos Montt dedicated himself
to building the FRG into a major political power. The FRG adopted
the General’s right-wing populist rhetoric and paternalistic
image of “ruling with a strong hand” to build a major
following among the rural and urban poor. In November 1999, the
FRG won the presidency and a congressional majority, in part, because
of the widespread rejection of the incumbent political party, PAN,
which had privatized state electric, telephone, and mail enterprises
in the previous government. Ríos Montt was appointed president
of the congress in 2000 by the FRG majority and held that position
three years consecutively by amending the constitutional clause
that decreed a one-year term limit. Over the next three years, the
FRG congressional majority systematically appointed personal friends
and political associates of Ríos Montt to the Constitutional
and Supreme Courts. The stage was set for the General’s presidential

July 14, 2003 the Guatemalan Constitutional Court overturned the
rulings of the Supreme Elections Tribunal and the Supreme Court
to recognize Ríos Montt’s candidacy in a four to three
ruling. The following day this ruling was suspended by the Supreme
Court in order to hear the dozens of appeals filed by political
parties and human rights organizations. In response to these legal
challenges, masked FRG congresspersons led thousands of paid FRG
sympathizers, transported to the capital, to riot in favor of the
General’s presidential candidacy. The national civilian police
force refused to confront the mobs that paralyzed the capital for
two days, specifically targeting aggression toward the courts, critical
news media centers, and political opponent headquarters. On July
30, the Constitutional Court upheld its previous ruling and ordered
the Supreme Elections Tribunal to inscribe Ríos Montt as the
FRG’s presidential candidate. 

FRG drew on their control of the government as well as their military
influence to mount a massive electoral campaign of bribery and intimidation.
A central component of the General’s strategy was the reorganization
of the 500,000 ex-members of the civilian Civil Defense Patrols
(ex-PAC), a paramilitary force organized during Ríos Montt’s
regime to “protect” villages from communist and guerilla
threats. In early 2003, the General’s political protégé,
President Alfonso Portillo, rekindled fears of violence and repression
across the Guatemalan countryside by declaring that the government
would pay each ex-PAC member 5,240 Quetzals (which amounts to 3.9
percent of GNP) for “their service during the civil war.”
The reorganized ex-PAC members, along with paid gangs, became the
new henchpeople of Ríos Montt, threatening human rights workers,
reporters, election observers, and opposition candidates, and intimidating
voters and blocking political opponents’ entry into towns.
Indigenous leaders across the country accused the FRG of provoking
fears that if the FRG did not win the elections that the violent
attacks against their communities of the early 1980s would be repeated.

addition to using public funds to pay the ex-PAC, the FRG used its
control of government social assistance programs to give away housing,
agricultural, and educational grants to peasant farmer families
in exchange for their vote. Construction materials, pots, agricultural
tools, and bags of food labeled with FRG propaganda began to appear
across the countryside. In San Marcos three children were crushed
to death in a mob fighting over political gifts distributed by local
FRG officials. The FRG attempted to prevent the press from exposing
these corrupt electoral practices through threats and intimidation.
The editor in chief of

El Periodico

was threatened at gunpoint
in his house after publishing scathing editorials about Ríos
Montt and four reporters of the critical national newspaper,


, were held hostage by members of ex-PAC. The FRG even
used their governmental authority to broadcast political speeches
and events during liberal news programs and interviews with the
opposition candidate. Pre-election polls revealed that these campaign
tactics of political gifts and intimidation had the greatest effect
in the poor indigenous communities of the Guatemalan highlands where
the vast majority of massacres and military killings were concentrated
under Ríos Montt’s regime. 

spite of these efforts, the polls in the last two months before
the elections consistently reported that the General’s percentage
of the popular vote had remained constant at 11 percent, leaving
him in third place behind Oscar Berger and Alvaro Colom. In a last
ditch effort the FRG majority passed a congressional decree on October
28, mandating a stoppage of all economic activity during the day
before, the day of, and the day after the national elections. FRG
congresspeople argued that the forced nationwide shutdown of business
would give all Guatemalans time off to vote and a much-deserved
holiday. In effect, the decree would have silenced the press, immobilized
security forces, prevented voters from being able to travel or purchase
gas, and impeded the ability of elections observers to access rural
areas and communicate denouncements. The mandated economic shutdown
would also have caused millions of dollars in lost revenues, something
the domestic oligarchy of powerful business elites would not allow.
President Portillo eventually gave in to extreme pressure from the
private sector, civil society, and the international community to
veto the bill. 

The “Civic Festival” 


the days before the elections, political analysts announced Ríos
Montt could only win through massive electoral fraud. Given the
unwillingness of the FRG administration to ensure the integrity
of the electoral process, the Supreme Elections Tribunal and the
dozens of elections observation teams in the country urged all eligible
Guatemalans to vote in order to minimize the chances of electoral
fraud. The citizens responded in record numbers and with the aid
of over 9,000 national and international election observers, marginalized
the efforts of the FRG to steal the elections. The day of the elections,
observers in municipalities across the country denounced the FRG
and other political parties for overtly paying citizens cash in
exchange for their votes. Groups of ex-PAC looted voting centers,
burning ballots, and forced local elections to be cancelled in six
municipalities. Thousands of ballots premarked in favor of the FRG
were discovered in a van without license plates that was stopped
at a highway checkpoint. These tactics of bribery, sabotage, intimidation,
and fraud succeed in increasing Rios Montt’s percentage to
19 percent of the popular vote, 7.5 percent more than his total
in the previous week’s national poll. 

these efforts of sabotage were not enough to overcome the nation’s
eagerness to dispose of the FRG after four years of corrupt and
ineffective administration. During the past four years, the FRG
altered the Guatemalan Constitution, corrupted the judicial process,
and dismantled the democratic government for private interests and
personal gains. Ríos Montt diverted upwards of 50 percent of
the national budget to the military through executive budget transfers
from other governmental departments. Billions of dollars of public
funds remain lost and unaccounted for, while most charges against
political officials have been blocked by the FRG’s blanket
application of immunity. For many citizens, no bribe could make
up for the economic hardships of the last four years that witnessed
the economic growth rate drop to -.06 percent in 2002. Physical
threats or risk of violent repercussions were not more intimidating
than the insecurities Guatemalans faced everyday. In 2003 alone,
incidents of murder and violent crime rose by 163 percent, with
over 30,000 Guatemalans wounded or killed by firearms. When all
the votes had been counted, the General remained in third place
behind Oscar Berger’s 34 percent of the vote and Alvaro Colom’s
26 percent of the vote, prompting a runoff. 

the end, the defeat of Ríos Montt in favor of the recycled
presidential candidates, Oscar Berger and Alvaro Colom, was just
another reshuffling of the self-interested dominant sectors in Guatemalan
politics. The parties of the old oligarchic business elites backed
by international capital have successfully replaced a military-based
party with strong ties to organized crime that has been at odds
with the private sector for the past four years.  

Berger is a partner in a number of national businesses and sits
on numerous company boards as well as Central American economic
counsels. Berger served as mayor of Guatemala City, the second most
important political office in the country, and lost his former bid
for the presidency in 1999 in the second round of run-off elections.
Berger’s campaign on the Grand Alliance political ticket has
been characterized by simple slogans, vague promises, and an avalanche
of political propaganda. 

Colom, the self-proclaimed “godfather of the factories”
in Guatemala, is founder and president of the National Commission
of Industries as well as president of two major industrial companies.
Colom’s experience as director of the National Fund for Peace
from 1991 to 1997 and role as negotiator in the return of thousands
of Guatemalan refugees earned him the presidential nomination of
a coalition of leftist parties in the 1999 elections, in which he
finished third. During the current elections, Colom succeeded in
attracting supporters from both sides of the political spectrum
to his newly created party, the National Union of Hope, by playing
on both his conservative economic beliefs and his slightly leftist

their credit, the business and political careers of both Colom and
Berger are distinguished by the absences of major corruption scandals.
But given the structure of politics in Guatemala, both parties were
strongly tempted to pact with the military, organized crime, and
the still powerful FRG congressional block to tilt the balance of
power in their favor in the tightly contested run-off elections. 

Berger won the run-off election on December 28 and, with his inauguration
on January 14, assumed control of a weakened government apparatus
with a pluralistic congress, empty coffers, and a growing national
debt. The first challenge of his new administration will be to fulfill
the basic responsibility of government to provide for the security
of its people. Guatemala has become the second most violent country
in Latin American, averaging 12 murders a day. 

the steadily declining economic situation in Guatemala will be an
equally challenging task for the new Administration. Currently over
57 percent of all Guatemalans live below the poverty level and of
the 8.2 million Guatemalans of working age, 3.2 million are unemployed.
The long-term future of Guatemalan economic policy will be largely
determined by the new administration’s stance in the final
negotiation rounds of the Central American Free Trade Agreement
and the loan restructuring negotiations with the International Monetary
Fund. All signs imply that Guatemala will tread the well know neoliberal
economic path—IMF imposed structural adjustments, macro-agricultural
export promotion, increased tax brakes for foreign capital investment,
and reduced tariff barriers for foreign products—that many
Latin American countries have walked during the 1980s and 1990s.
These neoliberal policies have further polarized economic inequalities
across Latin America and have led to widespread civil rebellion
challenging the democratic process in Ecuador, Bolivia, and, most
recently, the Dominican Republic.

Matthew Kraft
is a graduate of the Stanford University School of Education and is
currently volunteering as a human rights observer in Guatemala.