Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 316 | Noviembre 2007



The Reasons, Passions and Values Behind a Vote

Álvaro Colom is the country’s new President. Will he follow the footsteps of his uncle, Manuel Colom Argueta, perhaps Guatemala’s most remarkable political leader of the last 50 years before being assassinated in 1979? The next four years will tell. What we already know is that the collective political will rejected a government run by the retired military officer who was Colom’s opponent in the run-off elections. It is a positive decision of great symbolic value.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

Guatemala’s 2007 election campaign is finally over. It ended with a second-round victory on November 4 by Álvaro Colom Caballeros, who identifies as a social democrat, over retired General Otto Pérez Molina, who describes himself as center-right.

Reasons for the higher abstention

Once again, far more voters abstained in the second round than in the first: nearly 52% compared to 40%. Many analysts agree that this high abstention rate in the second round, which has become something of a tradition, is at least partly due to the fact that there’s no second round for municipal elections and thus people aren’t drawn out to vote on local issues. It seems clear that two other factors played a part this time as well. First, people were put off by the nastiness and mutual aggression in both candidates’ campaigns. And second, with a holiday falling on Thursday, November 1, the possibility of taking Friday off for an extra-long weekend offered many people a hard-to-resist temptation to get out of the city, even more tempting since the academic year had just ended in most schools.

For the first time,
the capital vote was not decisive

Álvaro Colom won just short of 1.5 million valid votes (53.8% of the total), compared to Otto Pérez Molina’s nearly 1.3 million, for a 5.6% difference in Colom’s favor. There were also 101,214 ballots annulled and 50,601 blank ballots cast.

Colom won in 20 of the country’s 22 departments. One of the 2 departments Pérez Molina won was the Department of Guatemala, which includes the capital, and the other was the Baja Verapaz, just north of the capital. Although Pérez Molina beat Colom by a full twenty points (60-40) in the Department of Guatemala, this victory did not compensate for his loss in the rest of the country, where Colom won by an even higher spread in some departments. For the first time, the vote in the capital—where the long weekend probably had a greater impact on the abstention rate than in any other region of the country—was not decisive.

People have often asked in astonishment how departments whose indigenous majorities suffered tremendously during the war—Huehuetenango and El Quiché, for example—have voted for former General Efraín Ríos Montt’s Guatemalan Republican Front in previous elections. There are no easy answers to this question, but this time the indigenous departments came out strongly in Colom’s favor, surpassing all expectations. No doubt many remember his good work as director of the Peace Fund FONAPAZ under Alvaro Arzú’s government (1996-2000).

Procedural vs.
substantive democracy

The article I wrote for last month’s envío on the results of the first round of the elections stirred up a certain amount of interest among some intellectuals groups in Guatemala’s capital. Miguel Angel Balcárcel organized what he called a political coffee klatch at the United Nations Development Program offices on October 15, using that text as the basis for a debate. Some 35 people attended.

After the text was presented, Edelberto Torres-Rivas and Mauricio López Bonilla commented on it. Torres-Rivas, a renowned social scientist and longtime representative of the Guatemalan Left, briefly underscored the importance of distinguishing between procedural democracy and substantive democracy in examining and assessing how democracy has progressed in Guatemala since 1985. It is in the area of procedural or instrumental democracy—which we on the left used to call formal democracy and whose value we strategically minimized—where the progress he has noted has been made. Substantive democracy is something else and, in this field, we’re still far from achieving important objectives: decreasing poverty, reducing inequality, increasing civil society’s participation, consolidating the decentralization of power in community and departmental councils, and so many other goals. He emphasized that we have to keep the conceptual distinction clear and strategically value what we didn’t value in the past.

Ideal democracy and the
one that’s possible today

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Mauricio López Bonilla, now a political analyst, insisted that we think about the democracy possible today and not about the ideal paradigm of a democratic country we desire. He asked whether we should view the presidential election as a vote for the lesser of two evils or as a positive vote for the better of the two candidates. We need to remember, he said, that the country is still dealing with the consequences of the military way social problems were addressed for so long, including the killing of the best thinkers and best politicians. He also noted that it’s hard to talk realistically about independence with reference to issues such as free trade and the security agenda in a country located so close to the long southern border of the United States.

Ideology, plutocracy, fragility...

A lengthy debate then ensued. I won’t summarize it here, but I do want to highlight what, in my opinion, were a few particularly significant comments. Pedro Trujillo of the Francisco Marroquín University said that rather than follow the distinction so lucidly expressed by Edelberto Torres-Rivas, my text tried to impose an outdated ideological framework on democracy.

Miguel Angel Reyes commented that in his view, the form of a government system constitutes a link between procedural and substantive democracy, and that in Guatemala the system is becoming a plutocracy, so that the power of money determines who can run for office, the coverage the media grants them and the financing that allows them to launch and run competitive campaigns.

Alejandro Balsells called attention to the critical fragility of procedural democracy, since these elections almost didn’t take place because of budget shortfalls and the inability to administer the newly decentralized polling places. In addition, the municipal elections produced 73 challenges, and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s work itself has been sharply questioned.

Víctor Hugo Godoy noted a fault in the constitutional provisions underlying the election process: the fact that municipal elections are won by a relative rather than absolute majority.

Finally, Amílcar Burgos, a member of the 1985 Constituent Assembly among many posts in government, stressed the achievement that elections are not run by either the government or the army anymore and that candidates are not discriminated against based on their ideas. But he also mentioned some pending tasks, such as the establishment of a national identity card and the deepening of the political parties’ local roots. He added that the decentralization of elections was poorly conceived since it wasn’t based on a sufficiently detailed breakdown of the municipalities to define who can vote and prevent people from registering to vote where they don’t live.

Not only reason but also passion

This debate may go on. Unfortunately, the format didn’t really allow for a give-and-take dialogue in which the contrasting opinions and contributions could be fleshed out as they would be in a true conversation. I offer here a few words towards continuing that debate.

To state that making value judgments on presidential candidacies isn’t part of an analytically rigorous process and that doing so is in fact equivalent to trying to illegitimately impose an ideological schema on democracy is at best questionable.

As Boaventura de Souza Santos would say, we have a choice in sociopolitical analyses between continuing to use a paradigm of knowledge related to social regulation—the one that dominates in the natural sciences and technology, which is supposedly free of ideology and in which presumably objective facts are simply subjected to investigation and analysis—and using a new paradigm of knowledge related to social emancipation, based not only on reason but also on passion and values.

In Guatemala’s just-ended elections, it’s interesting to analyze the democratic processes argumentatively, using all the power of creative reason, knowing—as has been clear since Heisenberg and his uncertainty principle—that investigation changes the reality being investigated. For example, surveys of people’s voting intentions change the opinions and perhaps even the decisions of some future voters. But my interest in investigating and analyzing is moved by the passion of participation, by the desire to extend and consolidate freedom and by the struggle for justice that will create better human conditions for voters to make their decisions.

Let he who is without
ideology cast the first stone

As Karl Polanyi said, no research would make much progress if it were not carried through to its results by the researcher’s “intellectual passions.”

I will openly confess that I’m interested in analyzing Guatemala’s democratic process through a lens shaped by the values to which I am committed: I prefer a country whose people are less sexist, less poor, less sick, better educated, less unequal, more demographically responsible, with less need to emigrate to be able to work, more civil, more honest and one where money is less powerful. Years ago, in an assembly of representatives from around Latin America, someone said lucidly in response to the demand for ideology-free analysis, “Let he who is without ideology cast the first stone.”

What must we do,
and how shall we do it?

It’s not enough that we be aware of the distinction between procedural and substantive democracy, or of the development of procedural democracy in Guatemala, even though it is extremely important.

The next step toward becoming a more humane nation is to ask ourselves what we should do with this distinction and this development. How do we ensure that the enormous importance of procedural democracy—for example, my freedom to engage in politics no matter what my ideas are, clean elections, increasing correspondence between the election rolls and the demographic reality and national and neighborhood identity, etc.—doesn’t paralyze us on the path to substantive democracy?

The plutocratic government system of which Miguel Angel Reyes spoke is now immensely complicated by the diversification of the power of money into the hands of traditional capital, emerging capital and criminal capital, each of them globalized. This system only hypothetically acts as a link between procedural democracy and substantive democracy because it creates hidden powers that are politically effective but not democratic. It also serves to paralyze democracy by failing to charge capital the taxes that would allow it to assume its social responsibility and help make it possible for the nation’s citizens to act with a freedom that is not only greater, but also impassioned and more firmly based in values.

A military officer didn’t win:
A fact with great symbolic value

Through both their active participation in these elections and their omission in the form of abstaining or casting null and blank ballots, Guatemala’s voters have just collectively rejected a government run by a retired army general, Otto Pérez Molina, and a certain way of using power. This could possibly hold for only four years, with the candidate defeated in these elections elected in 2011 since the Guatemalan people’s political will has shifted in the last four presidential elections so that the candidate defeated in the second round of each election is “crowned” in the second round of the subsequent election.

Whatever may happen in the future, however, the Guatemalan people’s current decision has great symbolic value. The army has not been vindicated in the person of one of its generals, albeit a retired one who has returned to civilian life.

The military haven’t been able to say “the civilians tried but couldn’t do any better than us,” which in more abstract terms means that neither the specific individual elected nor civilians as an institution could improve the country, with the obvious conclusion that we should give the military another chance.

With the Guatemalan army still refusing to accept its responsibility for the terrible reality that the Historical Clarification Commission illuminated in its 1999 report, there would have been an inevitable symbolic meaning had one of its members, even one back in civilian life after ending his military career, been elected Preident and head of state. I don’t think it’s possible to “waste experience,” as De Souza Santos would say; we must instead struggle against “lazy reason.”

The legacy of Colom Argueta?

We don’t know if President-elect Alvaro Colom will have the intelligence and courage to govern well, as he has promised. We thus don’t know if he will vindicate the memory of his uncle, Manuel Colom Argueta, assassinated by the hidden powers during the government of General Lucas García just after his party had been legally recognized. Manuel Colom, a true social democrat, was perhaps the most remarkable political leader of the last fifty years in Guatemala, one of those “best politicians” recalled by Mauricio López Bonilla as assassinated while some were seeking to impose military solutions to the country’s social problems.

We don’t know whether Alvaro Colom will follow in his footsteps, albeit naturally with his own personality, his own character. We can’t know whether he’ll make sure his government doesn’t include anyone mixed up with the hidden powers or organized crime. We don’t know whether his election will be merely a symbolic act, ensuring that Guatemala continues to have civilian Presidents while moving from procedural democracy to substantive democracy or, conversely, the majority on November 4 actually chose the President the country needs.

Only the next four years will tell. If Colom fills his government with people like some of those who have been mentioned for Cabinet posts, such as José Alejandro Arévalo or Fritz García Gallont; if instead of rewarding party loyalties he leaves effective people in their posts, such as Gert Rosental in Foreign Relations, for example—such decisions would suggest reconciliation and effective government. But we don’t know what he’ll do. History is life’s teacher, and Alvaro Colom’s history is just beginning.

Juan Hernández Pico, sj, is the envío correspondent in Guatemala.

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