Violence and unregulated campaign finance endanger political institutions ahead of the Guatemalan polls in September.
Guatemala’s Elections: Clean Polls, Dirty Politics , the latest policy briefing from the International Crisis Group, examines the approaching general elections (presidential, legislative and local) in the context of political institutions still haunted by the legacies of a 36-year civil war and now facing serious challenges from drug traffickers and other violent criminals. The presidential contest will likely pit Otto Pérez Molina, former head of military intelligence, against Sandra Torres, recently divorced wife of incumbent Álvaro Colom, though legal hurdles could still block Torres and leave the ruling party scrambling for a replacement.
Mudslinging and harsh rhetoric from both major parties have set the tone for an ugly campaign. Several candidates, their families, party activists and electoral staff have already been killed, mostly by unidentified gunmen. The security agencies and the electoral authority, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE), need to redouble efforts to prevent bloodshed, especially in the most dangerous municipalities. Candidates, especially for local office, should pledge to avoid violence, respect rules and use only legal and peaceful means to challenge results.
“Deteriorated security, drug traffickers’ brutality and polarised politics leave candidates especially vulnerable to attacks”, says Javier Ciurlizza, Crisis Group’s Latin America and Caribbean Program Director. “The TSE and security agencies should identify areas exposed to violence and bolster security measures there”.
Unregulated political finance poses a threat more subtle than violence but as dangerous to political life. Recent election campaigns have been among the costliest, per capita, on the continent, and spending in 2011 looks set to outstrip even previous records. An exorbitantly expensive campaign risks deepening corruption, widening the gulf between citizens and their political leaders and leaving politicians beholden to shadowy business and criminal interests, many of which are vested in continued lawlessness and a weak state. The TSE should continue to monitor parties’ campaign spending and investigate their finances. Other public institutions must assist. In particular, the Public Prosecutor’s office should exploit new provisions in the Penal Code to prosecute parties that break finance rules.
“Unrestrained money contributes to an exclusive political system that reasonably free voting every few years does little to hide, let alone reform”, says Richard Atwood, Crisis Group’s Research Director. “Politicians and parties must fully reveal who funds them, and the Public Prosecutor’s office, electoral authorities and donors should press them to do so”.