Mike Allison

Guatemalans head to the polls today to elect a president and vice president, 158 members of Congress, 333 mayors and municipal councils, and 20 deputies to the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN). The elections will take place amid uncertainty, disappointment, and hope following five months of sustained protest that led to the resignations and arrests of former Vice President Roxana Baldetti and now former President Otto Pérez Molina, as well.

While some have called for postponing the elections until there can be a re-founding of a true democratic state, the elections will proceed as planned. However, no one is exactly sure how many Guatemalans will turn out to vote. There has been an unprecedented mobilization of Guatemalans in recent months culminating with Thursday’s nationwide protest that shut down the country and brought perhaps 100,000 people to the streets. It is possible, but unlikely, that this mobilization will lead to higher voter turnout than usual on Sunday. 

After suffering historically low turnout rates in the past, Guatemala has experienced improved voter turnout in both 2007 and 2011. Rising rates of participation have come about for a number of reasons,  including the increased number of voting stations strategically placed throughout the country—which is good—and greater patronage that has been doled out to supporters of the various political parties in return for their votes – which is troubling. Turnout for this weekend’s election will likely prove higher than 2003 (56 percent) but perhaps not as strong as 2007 (60 percent) and 2011 (69 percent). 

No matter the turnout, however, a larger number of conflicts today than in years past. As mentioned earlier, a not insignificant number of Guatemalans do not want the elections to occur which might lead to problems. There is a strong likelihood that communities experiencing land and natural resource protests will also see conflict on election day. Finally, amidst all the uncertainty and upheaval of the last five months, it is not clear that the electoral commission has sufficiently prepared itself to manage a nationwide voting process. Not all these conflicts will turn violent. However, there are likely to be more challenges today than usual. 

In addition to turnout, the biggest question this weekend is how Guatemalans are likely to vote. Recent surveys report one-in-five Guatemalans indicating their intention to submit null or blank votes. They are rightfully dissatisfied with the political system generally, and with the current crop of presidential candidates specifically. Among those that surveys suggest have a chance at winning on Sunday, Manuel Baldizón, representing the Renewed Democratic Liberty (LIDER) party; Jimmy Morales, from the National Convergence Front (FCN); and Sandra Torres of the National Union of Hope (UNE) party stand out in the polls. In all likelihood, two of these three candidates will proceed to an October runoff. It is unlikely that any one person will reach the 50 percent threshold-plus-one required to walk away with a first round victory. 

In terms of Congressional contests, voters are likely to once again elect a highly fragmented legislature. No single party is likely to earn a majority of seats in the 158-member Congress. The Patriotic Party of the disgraced former president and vice president is likely to suffer the greatest number of losses. Still, it is not entirely clear who the party’s losses might benefit. It is possible that Amílcar Pop’s Frente Amplio URNG-Winaq, a leftist coalition, and Nineth Montenegro’s Encuentro por Guatemala will benefit from the lost “prestige” of the main political parties. Pop and Montenegro were the representatives at the forefront of the fight in congress to take down the corrupt Pérez Molina administration.  

There’s also quite a bit of disappointment heading into Sunday’s elections. While the country has rejoiced with the legal actions against the former vice president and president, as well as dozens of other individuals linked to corruption in recent months, Sunday’s elections are unlikely to lead to another huge step forward for the rule of law in Guatemala. The United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) recently produced a report on campaign financing in Guatemala. The report alleges that over 50 percent of campaign contributions have come from wealthy elites and businessmen, and through various forms of corruption. 

On top of this, there are also serious questions concerning the credentials of the main presidential candidates, almost all of whom are linked in one way or another to various corruption scandals. It is not clear that postponing Sunday’s elections would have led to the wholesale depuration of candidate lists, but it is pretty clear that many of the candidates elected on Sunday will have already been touched by corruption and organized crime. While the resignations of the president and vice president and the criminal proceedings begun against each of them are extremely important developments for Guatemala, the same sort of vigilance and citizen activism will be needed over the next four years if there’s to be hope for a cleaner national politics. Alejandro Maldonado, who became president following Pérez’s resignation, has been associated with far-right elements for the last half-century and was a member of the Constitutional Court that overturned the historic conviction of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Still, there is hope. Guatemala’s public prosecutor’s office and the CICIG have achieved many victories over the last few years, and accomplished many things in service to a potentially brighter future. They have successfully prosecuted high-ranking government and police officials and dismantled organized crime networks.  As a result of their joint efforts, the country’s criminal justice system is much stronger than it was four years ago and is now the envy of those in the Northern Triangle. A broad cross section of citizens has engaged in sustained mobilization for months now and appears ready to do so into the future. Guatemala’s justice system and citizens have put those vying for political office on notice. Their message is clear: “We might not be able to take down every corrupt political and economic official in the country, but don’t be mistaken. No one is above the law.” 

Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. He blogs at Central American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @centampolmike.