In 1996, a formal peace accord brought Guatemala’s ruinous civil war to an end. Over the course of the conflict an estimated 225,000 Guatemalans perished. Most of the victims were indigenous civilians. Despite the return of democracy, the contemporary outlook remains dreary.
Traveling around the country for several weeks prior to Sunday June 16th’s elections, I witnessed a population that was deeply estranged from their political system. Few respondents expressed enthusiastic support for any presidential candidate. Among individuals who did vote, the principal motivating factor seemed to be a grudging acknowledgment of voting as a democratic duty. Brian, a publicist from Antigua, responded: “Honestly, I just don’t want Sandra Torres to win. I’m casting a negative vote and just hoping for the best from a bad bunch.” Estela, an instructor from Jocotenango, despaired: “It is a duty to elect our leaders, but the whole system is co-opted by corruption. It’s a total fiasco.” For many Guatemalans, this election was “más de lo mismo” (more of the same).
The economy is slowing down. Nearly 55 percent of Guatemalans live in poverty, and Guatemala retains the unwanted distinction of being the third worst nation in the hemisphere in UNDP’s Human Development Index, just after Honduras and Haiti. Although homicides rates have fallen recently, they remain high with 22 victims per 100,000 people. Concurrently, Guatemala has regularly landed among the most corrupt nations in the world. In Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perception Index report, Guatemala finished 144th in the world. Among Latin American countries, only Venezuela, Haiti, and Nicaragua fared worse.
Most reporting surrounding the 2019 election has focused on the dismal state of Guatemalan politics by highlighting the uncertain future of CICIG (International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala). Initiated in 2006, CICIG is a United Nations-sponsored international body that supports the state public prosecutor in rooting out and prosecuting serious cases of corruption and human rights abuses. Two presidents and two vice-presidents have been or are in the process of being prosecuted for corruption during their time in office. Several previous administrations remain under investigation for suspicious activities, including Álvaro Colom (2008-2012) who is the former husband of current front-runner, Sandra Torres. Torres finished with 25 percent of the vote and will continue to the run-off election next August 11th, 2019.
Faced with such frequent examples of executive-level corruption, it is easy to presume that Guatemala’s political institutions are rotten to the core. While CICIG is an important component in the battle against corruption, it is at best, a reactive solution. To increase accountability, legislative productivity, and address the root causes of corruption, it is time to address the largest problem confronting Guatemala’s democracy: an inchoate party system.
The first problem is serial populism. In a region awash with populists, Guatemala undoubtedly qualifies as the worst case. The sheer number of presidential hopefuls can be staggering with an average of 13 official candidates every election. This year, 19 separate candidates (and two more candidates disqualified under problematic circumstances) competed for the presidency. As Democratic primary observers recognize, voters can be easily overwhelmed by too many options. In a series of bland debates and interviews, it was hard to identify clear policy distinctions among candidates. Although some candidates might lean toward the left or the right, they are extremely difficult to place ideologically on the political spectrum and are prone to policy switching. UNE, the party with the largest bancada (a projected 61 out of 158 seats) in the new Congress, covered most towns with generic posters that simply stated “Afíliate”(become a member). Whatever the party promised to do in power was left to your imagination.
Generally, programmatic left-wing parties have encouraged more partisan politicking. Historically repressed, fractured, and electorally weak, the Guatemalan left has routinely failed to secure more than 10 percent of the vote in elections. The absence of strong, ideologically-driven candidates has meant political parties are personalist vehicles for presidential aspirants with little coherence or long-term institutionalization. In conversation, when Guatemalans endorsed a specific candidate, they often could not remember the name of the political party. The second-place finisher in the June 16th election, Alejandro Giammattei has now run for president four consecutive times. Each time, he has represented a different party. As quickly as leaders rise and fall, their parties disappear. Thus, political parties and their presidential candidates compete on the basis of personal appeals or clientelism, while making short-term promises that are quickly forgotten once in office.
Constitutional restrictions ban executive re-election, but no political party holding the country’s highest office has won any subsequent presidential election. Current President Jimmy Morales and his National Convergence Front (FCN) party are a clear example of this trend. In 2015, Morales won 24 percent of the vote in the first round before defeating Sandra Torres in the second round. This year, the FCN’s candidate for the presidency could barely muster four percent support. In the presidential races, political parties lose on average 70 percent of their first-round support between when their candidate wins office and the subsequent election. Of the eight parties that have held the presidency, only three still exist (PAN, UNE, and FCN). Given the poor performance of the FCN, its days are likely numbered.
The extreme volatility of presidential elections is mirrored in the legislature. Guatemala routinely has the highest levels of electoral volatility in Latin America, with 1995 and 1999 as the only years a single party commanded majority support. Since 1999, the largest three parties in Congress have never been the same from election to election. And since 2007, the number of parties has proliferated exponentially, while the legislature grew increasingly fragmented. Jimmy Morales only boasted eight party members out of 158 deputies. A record 20 different parties will be represented in the new legislature, including six brand new parties. While Torres could theoretically count the support of 38 percent of the seats occupied by her UNE party if she wins the second round, Giammattei would only have the support of 12 percent of the legislature that his new “Vamos” party has. This is all, though, in theory. High levels of party switching means legislators become votes for hire, creating the ideal conditions for vote buying, pork barreling, and corruption.
Time may be running out for Guatemala’s democracy. From a high of 71 percent in 2006, popular support for democracy has plummeted to 48 percent, placing Guatemala dead last among Latin American countries in terms of democratic support. Those numbers track with income. As income declines, so does support for democracy, and nearly half of Guatemalans would support a military coup to combat crime or corruption. Most worrying, Guatemala’s youth (ages 18-35) are the most likely to support a military intervention. Thirty-four percent trust elections, fifteen percent trust political parties, and only six percent identify with a political party, the lowest rate of partisanship in the hemisphere. While electoral participation has been relatively high, this year’s abstention rates surged by 10 percent.
The cure requires greater party system institutionalization. A weak party system has assured a never-ending parade of populist outsiders who promise change. And a ban on re-election means presidents have little incentive to perform well in office. Parties are personalist electoral vehicles with little substance or depth. The absence of party thresholds for legislative representation increase fragmentation, slowing legislative productivity and opening the door for vote buying.
Despite recent reforms approved in 2016, it remains too easy to form a new political party. Instead of working to build a broad, inclusive party over the long-term, elites quickly jump ship and start a new party. Although Guatemala’s institutions were intended to increase flexibility and participation, their current failure is apparent with serial populism, extreme electoral volatility, a fragmented legislature, and an increasingly alienated population.
The second-round runoff election is set for August 11. Historical precedent supports the conclusion that voter turnout will fall below the relatively dismal first-round participation rates. Guatemala has pressing concerns, but unfortunately, these elections seem like a depressing re-run of a familiar story.