Is a run-away likely in Guatemala's runoff? Unfortunately, no

  • The runoff between Colom and Pérez Molina is this Sunday, November 4.
  • Polls are indicating a dead-heat; although some show Pérez Molina to be slipping in the last hour. But to the fears of many human rights organizations he may decide to see to it that he is the victor, votes or not.
  • The international community would like to see Colom triumph, because Pérez Molina brings too much dirty laundry to his candidacy.
  • If Guatemala is to truly put its decades-old reputation as being the hemisphere's worst human rights violator behind it, and begin to deal with the pivotal issues of impunity and reconciliation, it would be wise to turn its back on Pérez Molina and vote for Colom.

Some food for thought, as noted by the BBC: "the 2006 murder rate (of 5,885) was higher than the average number of Guatemalans killed each year as a result of political violence from 1960 to 1996, when 200,000 died in a civil war between left-wing guerrillas and the military." This statistic hardly indicates that Guatemala's security situation can be readily ameliorated. Rather, these grim figures indicate that the breakdown in the security apparatus of the country continues 11 years after its weak and ineffective UN-brokered peace agreement came into effect. The divisive political atmosphere that currently permeates Guatemala is directly associated with the lawlessness and violence that currently exist in the country. On September 9, the two main candidates, Álvaro Colom and Otto Pérez Molina, received 27 percent and 25 percent of the vote, respectively; at the same time, as a result of political assassinations the body count reached almost 50, by conservative estimates, over the summer leading up to the elections. Although both national and international observers noted the relative calm, efficiency, and transparency of the elections, this does little to assuage mounting tension over the fact that a runoff is scheduled for November 4 with two candidates who are a hair-pin apart from one another in terms of their electoral prospects. Guatemala badly needs new leadership to rally around, not political divisiveness with a victorious candidate who may win only by the narrowest of margins or through attempted manipulation.

Getting to September 9
Any presidential election carries a marker of importance; however the 2007 Guatemalan election is critical for many reasons, including the lack of enforcement of the Peace Accords of 1996, issues of impunity and reconciliation, and the gross marginalization of the rural indigenous people who make up approximately 60 percent of the population. September's election also was unique because of the multiplicity of candidates, with 14 people officially entering their names on the ballot. Among them was Rigoberta Menchú, the indigenous female leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, whose well-intentioned campaign centered on a peaceful future for Guatemala disappointingly went nowhere.

As previously cited, the 2006 murder rate in Guatemala was the worst the country had witnessed since the official conflict began in 1960. While the final statistics are still to be determined, 2007 promises to surpass the previous year's statistics in both common and political murders. Many of the political murders within Guatemala received international attention: these include the murder of the son of human rights advocate Amilcar Méndez, the slaughter of three members of El Salvador's delegation to the Central American Parliament, and the death of Aura Salazar, a secretary to Pérez Molina who was gunned down in public, all indicating a further deterioration in the security state to the extent few dare to envision. The issue of impunity for both past and present crimes is the cornerstone of the election, but few doubt that this issue will soon be resolved.

Early on, Colom and Pérez Molina were the established front-runners, falling along the political spectrum in a classic left-right dichotomy. A brief look at them within the context of a Guatemala yearning for a meaningful reconciliation and a future that would guarantee some semblance of basic security and justice is critical to comprehending what is likely to happen on Sunday.

Colom: Third Time's a Charm?
Álvaro Colom is well-respected in the human rights movement and the international community. He is the nephew of passionate democrat Manuel Colom Argueta, the former mayor of Guatemala City who was assassinated shortly after he appeared before a press conference in Washington, D.C., which was sponsored by COHA in 1979. Colom emerges from a center-left political background, having been active in Guatemalan politics for many years as the head of the National Union of Hope (UNE) party. He also previously served as a Deputy Minister of Economy. Although he publicly espouses reforms that, at least on their face, seem eminently practical, he failed to successfully sell them to the electorate in his two previous runs for the presidency. His main emphasis this time is on overhauling the country's weak security and judicial systems while balancing prison reform and ending the massive impunity long-tormenting the country. This would be a tall order by any standard, yet, unfortunately, the Guatemalan people have consistently sat on their hands during his previous failed efforts to win the highest position in the country. The latest poll numbers indicate that, although Colom had barely slipped out in front of Pérez Molina in the initial elections of September 9 and the subsequent lead-up to this Sunday's ballot, the latter remains dangerously close in the standings: the most recent poll staged by Borge and Asociados places Colom at 39.4 percent and Pérez Molina at 35.1 percent. With a margin of error of 3.2 percent, however, simple math would register the fact that the race remains too close to call. Other studies by Vox Latina and BGC, Ulises Beltrán, and Asociados give the edge to Pérez Molina, split 53 to 47 and 52 to 48 in his favor, respectively. In other words, the possibility of a Pérez Molina presidency is very real, and there are bona fide grounds to fear what would transpire with his victory in a country with a horrific past, a violent present, and an uncertain future.

Pérez Molina: Mano Dura o Mano Vieja
Like his opponent, Otto Pérez Molina has also been involved in Guatemala's public life for years. His tenure as a general and head of the army's infamous intelligence unit in the later years of the country's civil conflict coincided with the signing of the Peace Accords of 1996. Their implementation is something he likes to take credit for having helped assist when he tries to counter Colom's criticism that his victory would mark a step back, not a development forward, for the country. However, in a land where 98 percent of all murders go unsolved, that boasts one of the lowest standards of living in the hemisphere, and that serves as a major connection hub between the drug routes headed to the North, not much is left to be savored over the virtual in-name-only Peace Accords.

General Pérez Molina is no paladin of Guatemalan democratic rule – far from it, in fact. One of his senior commanding positions was leading the G2 – the previously mentioned army intelligence service – which was infamous over the years for its human rights atrocities and drug trafficking. This becomes important because whoever is elected president of Guatemala will have to acknowledge and work with the newly constituted UN-Guatemalan initiative named the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). This indicates a step in the right direction toward solving impunity problems, but will make the job of Pérez Molina, if he were to be elected president, all the more controversial and reprehensible: how can you lead a country in which your and your cohort's names are presumably bound to surface amongst the myriad documents highlighting the past atrocities that occurred?

Pérez Molina has pledged to increase the army and police presence throughout the country by 50 percent and has been quoted as being in favor of reinstating the death penalty. While his hard line is archaic in scope and contradictory to his avowed so-called support for human rights, his words will somewhat resonate with many Guatemalans, including those thought to be his natural enemies, the poor – who misguidedly perceive him as an answer to the plague of impunity and criminal violence throughout the country. Pérez Molina says his approach to and interpretation of mano dura (strong hand) does not resemble or mean what it used to in the war-torn and violent context of Cold War-era Central America. Rather, as he and his supporters note, his policy will tackle security issues with conviction and seriousness (as if Colom would not or could not possibly have the conviction or strength to rise to the occasion).

The possibility of the death penalty as a quick-fix to Guatemala's admittedly grave epidemic of crime, both common and genocidal, is nothing less than an insult to the victims, who have yet to be rehabilitated or reconciled. In addition to Colom's enlightened criticism and slogan of "Guatemala cannot return to the past," Menchú simply yet eloquently summed up the importance of the election when she said that it would be counterproductive to elect Pérez Molina because "Guatemala lived for 40 years under mano dura, and it left the country poor and violent."

An indication of Pérez Molina's capacity for instilling security in the country has been further impugned by recent allegations that have surfaced that he may have been complicit in ordering the assassination of the nationally renowned human rights advocate Bishop Juan Gerardi. An interview between famed radio network talk host Amy Goodman and author Francisco Goldman discusses the timing of the death, which coincided with the release of material documenting the army's deep involvement in the vast majority of atrocities which occurred during the civil war, a report Gerardi helped to tabulate. Molina has had to face these accusations publicly, although each time he is forced to respond, he has either changed his story or blatantly denied whether he had any knowledge about the political murder.

Waiting with Apprehension for November 4
The European Union Observation Mission (EU-EOM) to Guatemala published a detailed report after the initial presidential elections of September 9. Although the number of deaths resulting from the election turmoil sweeping the country was comparatively high in the months prior to the elections, the actual day that the Guatemalan people went to the polls was marked with relative calmness. The EU-EOM attributed this to the many modest reforms that had been introduced into the electoral process, with the help of the EU-EOM, the Organization of American States, and other international observers and bodies.

Compared with the last presidential election in 2003, this round saw a 13 percent increase in voter registration; 55,000 people were trained within the country to assist at various polling stations; and although still paltry, female candidates increased in number from 9 to 12 percent. Furthermore, the availability of polling stations increased by 65 percent, from 8,910 to 13,756, with 82 percent privy to a police presence. The decentralization of polling sites throughout the Guatemalan countryside benefited democracy and encouraged voter turnout, especially given how Guatemala's geography has played a major role in the brutal conflict from which it now desperately seeks to distance itself.

Decentralization in another context is a crucial factor in this election as well; like many conflicted, impoverished, and war-torn countries, vast amounts of centralization occurring in the capital have often encouraged marginalization of rural peoples and areas. In referring to past polling data, Adriana Beltrán notes that the candidate who carries the capital city usually goes on to win the election due to the political influence and the fact that both the bulk of the electorate and political sophistication can be found in Guatemala City. This is coupled with the misinformation, stereotypes, and disenfranchisement that affect the indigenous people dispersed throughout the rest of the country. Although, as indicated in the EU-EOM report, polling stations were more readily accessible to the rural people throughout Guatemala in the recent election, some insiders believe that Colom will had to have worked both sides of the stratified country if he intends on winning; the old institutions and money in Guatemala City still hold definitive influence over the country.

Last Minute Reflections
To gain the presidency, the final hurdle that Colom will have had to clear in order to build a firm foundation in the capital will be his ability to foster the possibility of reconciliation between the armed forces, the police and other security forces, and the civilian population. Although it has been documented that the army was responsible for approximately 85 percent of the atrocities committed during the war, a majority of Guatemalans still perceive it to be a more venerated institution than the police and other security forces. Pérez Molina has been able to capitalize on this by promoting a further dulling of the line between army and police actions, an unfortunate obfuscation too often found throughout Latin American history. Since individual security is of the utmost importance to Guatemalans, they eventually must put their trust in a candidate who speaks of true reform. That should be an effort easier to countenance than just holding on to the shadowy vestiges of disreputable institutions that can seemingly provide quick, if elusive, security while high levels of injustice remain unaddressed and responsibilities for past grave crimes unassigned.

Eleven years after the Peace Accords, Guatemala finds itself in the midst of a close, crucial, and already flawed runoff election, due to the increased divisiveness of Guatemalan society over how best to reconcile the past and move forward. In a country where impunity runs rampant, it is incumbent upon the winner of the election to ensure that mano dura really turns out to mean mano justa and mano inteligente, particularly through bolstering the role of the CICIG. Of the two candidates, Colom must bee seen as what is urgently necessary for Guatemala at this particular moment: a revamping and democratic reform of the security and penal system with a center-left business approach, while promising to pull the foundation of the country out from underneath the mire of the 36-year civil war and subsequent post-conflict malaise.

Pérez Molina may be the walking epitome of the new form that the Guatemalan conflict will take and the complete antithesis to any path forward for the country. With that said, the latest poll numbers are mixed, and with a neck-and-neck race certain to be witnessed, the determining question is whether or not Guatemala will get lucky this time.