Bleak Prospects For A Democratic Renaissance in Guatemala

The September 9, 2007 Guatemalan presidential elections will experience, for the first time, an indigenous woman attempting to capture her country’s highest office: Rigoberta Menchú is challenging candidates Alvaro Colom, General Otto Pérez Molina and Alejandro Giammattei. If Menchú wins the ballot, it could lead to major changes in Guatemala, such as national recognition and overflowing pride in the indigenous heritage. But with only one month until the September 9 ballot, Menchú’s chances are fast slipping away as her popularity continues to sharply decline, stalling now in single digit percentages.

It was thought that her international fame resulting from winning the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize—bestowed for her nonviolent work on behalf of oppressed native people—would have somehow boosted her domestic credibility, but instead it might have served to limit her appeal. Aside from her noteworthy accomplishments, her platform lacks substance and has suffered when contrasted against the favored center-left candidate, Alvaro Colom. With a little time left to gain much-needed support, Menchú must either aggressively come out fighting or give up the dream of being able to carry the distinction of being Guatemala’s first indigenous and female president.

The Candidates
Menchú is the Encuentro por Guatemala’s (EG) candidate, and Alejandro Giammattei, who formerly was director of the country’s prison system, comes from the now barely competitive ruling Gran Alianza Nacional (GANA). Meanwhile, Pérez Molina is running for the rightist Partido Patriota, with Colom being the standard bearer of the left-leaning Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE). Colom unsuccessfully challenged the now incumbent President Berger in the 2003 presidential election, which he ultimately lost. However, his initial run was strong enough to win him UNE’s support again as its presidential candidate for the 2008 election.

Changing Tides
For a while, Menchú’s candidacy was a clear indicator that politics within Guatemala were beginning to change. Guatemala has a population of 13 million, 40 percent of whom are of Mayan descent. Until recently, Guatemalan politics have been dominated by Ladinos (people of European or mixed descent), but now indigenous politicians are making headway in Congress and are being elected as mayors across the country. For Menchú, a K’iche Mayan Indian, it should have been easy enough for her to amass fellow indigenous support. She had had notable success in securing support abroad, including that of Bolivian president Evo Morales, also of indigenous descent, who gave her his endorsement.

Among some of the indigenous there always had been a general atmosphere of mistrust surrounding Menchú’s candidacy, and she has done little to dispel the grounds for this. Although she is of indigenous descent, Menchú has not gone out of her way to use her singular background to attract the votes of Guatemala’s near-majority native Mayan population, whose votes alone should have given her the electoral advantage that Menchú now desperately needs. A further possible hindrance to her election are the accustaions that she has had past associations with Marxist guerrillas and recently has been close to President Berger’s conservative government. This has placed her in an unfavorable light with some, who see her as having a straddling personality without a core of genuine conviction. In addition, she created her own political party, Winaq, meaning ‘humanity’ in the K’iche language, whose leadership lacks practical government experience or seasoned lieutenants. Moreover, she does not project strong policies that could generate a large and enthusiastic as well as partisan backing of her candidacy. The main plank in her platform seems to revolve around her personal background and the multiple experiences that led up to her winning the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize in “recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous people.”

Errors Leading to Political Alienation
According to the Caribbean and Central American Report, in late March 2007, there was a “continental summit of indigenous people and nationalities of Abya Yala, held in Iximché, a sacred Mayan site and main city of the Kagchikel Maya people,” but astonishingly, Menchú failed to make an appearance there, nor did she send a message of any sort. Formal support of her presidential candidacy was proposed by one of the delegates as the conference was coming to an end, but any prospects for a collective backing of her candidacy was quickly shot down by the attendees as many viewed her failure to appear as an insulting snubbing of the indigenous culture. Thus, she has managed to alienate herself from a large portion of what could have been her potential backers.

Furthermore, the choice of Luis Fernando Montenegro, a former president of Guatemala’s national coffee association (ANACAFE), as Menchú’s vice-presidential running-mate further antagonized some of the indigenous population. They accused her of embracing the neo-liberal model through her alliance with the EG and her partnership with Montenegro.

The Indigenous Rise To Power
Nevertheless, the indigenous population appears to be staging a break through to the country’s mainstream political milieu and today, out of 332 mayoralities, they control 119 in communities considered native. They represent a large sector of the population whose support Menchú should be actively courting and which should have been committed to her candidacy by now. Instead of going back to her roots to gain her core supporters, however, Menchú almost exclusively pursued those who already are disenchanted with Guatemala’s political party-based system, but there are now not many new votes to be found here.

Menchú created her own party, Winaq, so that she could run unhindered for the presidency and without having to ward off any pressure to compromise on her own goals. Even though she is now the official candidate of the EG, she initially had been trying to build alliances with different parties in order to attract a wider base of support than the miniscule tally she has attracted up to now. But, according to the February 22 issue of the Central American & Caribbean Affairs, Menchú wanted her party to have more of a stake in the operation, with Winaq being assigned “50 percent of the candidacies for mayors and deputies on the slate.” Menchú’s actions, in both creating her own party and selecting her own VP candidate, showed that she was prepared to compromise when it was to her advantage to do so, even if it potentially isolates her from large support groups, but is also prepared to hold her ground. These shifts seem both confuse as well as confound supporters and opponents alike.

A July 18 opinion poll showed that Colom and Pérez Molina are separately gaining in popular support and are favored to win the September election, or at least make it past the first round, reports Latinnews Daily. Colom currently holds 37.5 percent of the vote while Menchú falters with less than a mere 5 percent. Meanwhile, candidates Pérez Molina and Giammattei have a sagging 20.4 percent and 12.1 percent respectively. While in relation to polling results there always is a significant margin of error, Colom nonetheless maintains a definitive lead over the other candidates and only needs 50 percent of the vote to win in September, eliminating the need of a second round vote.

A Platform of…What?
Menchú won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her work based on nonviolence on behalf of oppressed Indians. For this year’s ballot, her main platform goals are headed by poverty alleviation, greater security, and combating corruption, all topics that have obvious connections to her lifetime work for oppressed native people. Before announcing her candidacy in collaboration with the EG, Winaq, tried to strike up alliances with parties on both the left and the right, such as the EG as well as the Movimiento Amplio de la Izquierda (MAIZ). Amilcar Pop of Winaq says that Menchú’s party is “seeking the reconstruction of the Guatemalan state to make structural changes and eradicate all expressions of institutionalized racism.”

Menchú has said that she would review the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), with Guatemala being one of the six countries that already have ratified the pact. The agreement has given preferential trade access for Guatemalan exports to the U.S. market; but Menchú’s objective would be to make the pact more beneficial to Guatemala. But with DR-CAFTA already in effect, it seems unlikely that she would do much to change the status quo.

Escalating Violence
With the election only a month away, concern has been raised over the increasing violence that has resulted in the deaths of members of every Guatemalan political party. While the numbers vary, the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH) and Mirador Electoral (Election Watch) estimate the number of political murders from March 2006 onward to be between 26 and 36. None of the political parties have remained untouched; it has not been determined if the murders directly correlate to the popularity of the candidates or parties. UNE has suffered 14 murders, GANA five, PP four, and EG and Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG) have suffered three murders each.

2007 Election: What Does the Future Hold?
With the election fast approaching, there is not even the slimmest of chances that Menchú will be able to dent Colom’s anticipated victory. While the overall ratings for each of the candidates in a very large field have fallen since the beginning of the campaign due to various factions breaking off, Colom still holds a double-digit lead over Menchú. In order for Menchú to pull off a miraculous victory she must implement radical changes in her campaign, with this appearing unlikely.

To begin, it is important that Menchú secures broader popular support and convinces the population that she is a doughty figure who would fight for that which is important to the country as well as to her immediate community, and not see the presidency as a support base for only the latter. For decades Menchú has been in the public eye due to her admirable work with the indigenous, but she still lacks government experience, a fact that gives even her own people good cause to be skeptical and question her ability to effectively lead her troubled nation. If Menchú can gain support in her few remaining weeks on the campaign trail—there is a possibility that she could emerge as a strong candidate in a future race. But sadly, as of today, her chances of winning the 2007 presidency are slim to nil.

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