A Turn to the Right – The Guatemalan Election


Every fourth year the western media massively mobilize to cover every single detail of the presidential election of the United States of America.

Meanwhile, other states hold elections that pass by without anyone taking notice. One of these countries is Guatemala, a small country in Central America known for its ancient pyramids (that appear as the rebel base in the Star Wars IV – A New Hope), Mayan culture, and a long and bloody civil war. In 1996, Guatemala came out of a 36 year long civil war in which 200,000 people were killed, of which 83% were indigenous, and has since embarked on a difficult path towards democracy and development.

The fourth election since the civil war was held on September 11th 2011 and since no party received over 50% of the votes in the first round, the election went to a runoff on the 6th of November. In the runoff between Otto Pérez Molina, from the right-wing Patriotic Party (PP), and Manuel Baldizón, from the populist party Renewed Democratic Liberty (Lider), the former general Pérez Molina won with 54% of the votes.

Although the voter turnout was low, it has been steadily increasing since the end of the civil war—from 40% in 1999 to 60% in this years election. However, according to Latinobarometro only 18% of the population says that they trust the judiciary and the police force. This, together with one of the highest homicide rates in the world (41 murders per 100,000) and almost total impunity, has made the Guatemalans generally distrustful of politics.

The election was marked by two disturbing tendencies: increased politically motivated violence and unclear financing of the major political parties. The election became the most violent in the last 25 years with 41 murders directly connected to political activity, according to the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office. Despite new laws that aim to regulate spending on election campaigns, the Guatemalan election is, counted per capita, one of the most costly elections in the western hemisphere. Exactly how campaigns are financed is often unclear. Only 10% of the campaign budgets come from the state—the rest comes from private backers—and exactly where this money comes from is difficult to assess. Accusations that parties have connections to criminal organizations and receive money from them have been common during this year’s election campaign. The business-sector also contributes, hoping to profit from their “investments” through political favors. Because of the close connection between the business-sector and criminal organizations, no political party has managed to effectively challenge these interest groups preference for a weak, low-taxed, and poorly-resourced state.


President-elect Pérez Molina ran for president in the 2007 election but lost against the self-proclaimed social democrat Álvaro Colom. Unlike many Guatemalan political parties that disintegrate if they do not win the election, the Patriotic Party has remained. However, just like many other parties, PP functions more as a political machine with the purpose to take one man to power rather than an organized political party with a social basis and coherent policy platform.

The key political issue throughout the election campaign has been security. With soaring crime, escalating violence by criminal organizations, and a high level of corruption, public security has become a top priority. The former military general Pérez Molina’s motto of a “mano dura” (strong hand) against the criminals has resonated well with the urbanized part of the population. He has vowed to radically increase the number of policemen and deploy more soldiers to combat organized crime, but also by using video surveillance, extending criminal sentences, and lowering the age of criminal responsibility. Pérez Molina himself commanded troops against the leftist guerillas during the civil war, in an area where human rights violations where most blatant. Human rights activists—as well as political opponents—have therefore accused him of war crimes against civilians. Pérez Molina has denied these accusations and instead stressed that he helped to negotiate the peace accord in 1996. Whether the accusations are true or not, Pérez Molina still has personal ties to the army and he trusts the soldiers to solve the crime problem. But the solution has been viewed with skepticism from parts of the population, especially among the people who were abused by the military during the civil war.

Pérez Molina seeks to pursue the same solution to the problem of organized crime as Mexico has, that is to deploy soldiers to combat the organizations. But given that the Mexican conflict with the cartels has generated over 40,000 deaths and has no victory in sight, it is uncertain how the Guatemalan army would be more successful in such an attempt.


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