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Guatemala Elections, Take Two

If Guatemala’s general Election last month captured headlines, the second round or runoff, on Sunday October 25, seems to be happening under the radar.

The September 6 vote witnessed an empowered civil society that had mounted huge rallies against corruption, the public seemed poised to repudiate the existing political class, and sentiment grew against one-time front-runner Manuel Baldizón of Libertad Democrática Renovada (Renewed Democratic Liberty or LIDER) party. A presidential runoff between Jimmy Morales of the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN-National Convergence Front) and Sandra Torres of the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE-National Unity of Hope) is less 10 days away. Driving through the streets of Guatemala City, there is hardly any campaign propaganda. The sprint towards the presidency seems subdued.

Some thoughts on what may account for this. First, the once prominent Baldizón is no longer on the ballot, having pulled out after coming in a close third during the first round. Second, the recent arrest of the alleged ring leader of the La Linea customs corruption scandal that roiled the country for six months has captured the attention of most Guatemalans. The former private secretary of ex-vice president Roxana Baldetti has declared his intention to name names. More than 1,500 private businesses have been implicated. Third, the devastating mudslide in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Guatemala City that took the lives of more than 273 people has cast a solemn shadow over this election. Fourth, depleted campaign coffers have shifted advertising onto social networks—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.  Instead of running ads on television or radio, candidates are going more directly to the people on their turf. For Morales, this means more time spent in rural communities where his support is modest and Torres in the larger ones where her support seems weaker.  

Enthusiasm is down. Platforms lack detail as witnessed by two recent lackluster presidential debates featuring few proposals or details. The candidates largely attacked one another, pointing out the other’s lack of experience. Even so, Morales, an experienced communicator and former TV personality, spoke generally on investing in education (professionalizing teachers and building schools), improving health (changing the way medicines are bought and distributed), and rethinking security (proposing a top-down review of the national police to root out corruption). He faces many challenges, including the lack of local party structure. His FCN has no municipal presence and holds only 12 of 158 congressional seats. Negotiation skills will be key. However, mayors from Baldizón’s LIDER Party pledged their support.  They represent a majority of the country’s cities.

Torres’s priorities center on social programs, and contribute to the strength of her support among rural women voters—a constituency she needs to win. Her administration would seek to reinvent the Bolsa Familiar, or conditioned federal assistance. She supports the creation of a data base to monitor and evaluate beneficiaries to help ween them off state coffers. On crime prevention, Torres highlights programs that promote art, sports, and music activities for youths. Both Torres and Morales support maintaining Guatemala’s current anti-corruption crusader, Attorney General Thelma Aldana, and extending the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

Local pundits suggest this may be Morales’s contest to lose. Yet there are so many unknowns that make an outcome difficult to predict. October 25, some local elections will also be repeated in 11 municipalities, because of incidents that occurred on September 6. These include, Joyabaj, Quiche; Conguaco; Santa Catarina Mita; Jutiapa; Morazán, El Progreso; San José El Ídolo, San Antonio Suchitepéquez, and San Francisco Zapotitlán, Suchitepéquez; Malacatán, San Marcos; Pueblo Nuevo Viñas, Santa Rosa; Santa Clara La Laguna and Santa Catarina, Sololá. Despite the risk of renewed political violence, Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal seems ready with plans to mitigate any potential conflicts. The biggest challenge on election day may be a low turnout, especially in the capital. Given the pressing social, political and economic issues—corruption, lack of transparency, insecurity, and low public revenues, not to mention the need for civil service, state procurement and political and electoral reforms—citizens should heed the lessons of September 6 and make their votes count, lest anyone forget, #GuateDaEjemplo.

Subdued campaign advertising in Guatemala City.


Posted by

Tony Garrastazu

Resident Country Director, Central America