Political Outlook & Reform in Guatemala

Ben Raderstorf / Inter-American Dialogue

Demonstrations in Guatemala, which have persisted relentlessly for almost eleven weeks, focus on the extensive network of corruption identified by CICIG and demand the resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina. More recently, protestors have also begun to expand their demands, calling for extensive reforms to cleanse the government of acts of corruption, and more importantly, of those committing the acts. Although the extensive indignation forges an opportunity for change, significant obstacles impede the formulation and implementation of reforms. More importantly, it is uncertain whether any reforms, even if implemented, will have the necessary impact on the entrenched problem of corruption facing the nation.

The Inter-American Dialogue, in partnership with Oxfam America invited two distinguished guests to comment on the prospects for Guatemala’s political future. Eduardo Stein, the Former Vice President and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Guatemala and a member of the board of directors of the Inter-American Dialogue and Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight, the Former Minister of Finance of Guatemala and the chair of the board Oxfam International, shared their insights on the viability and effectiveness of various reforms and changes currently discussed.

The panelists agreed that the present moment—with mass social mobilization and the identification of extensive corruption—reflects both challenges and opportunities to pursue reforms. According to Fuentes Knight, the demonstrations of almost 50,000 people do not come as a surprise, considering the clear cases of corruption that have arisen: a criminal network of tax evasion, a corruption scandal within the Guatemalan Social Security Institute, IGSS, which resulted in the deaths of numerous patients, corruption among members of Congress who have amassed significant wealth, and the resignation of a presidential aid, Secretary General Gustavo Martínez, amid allegations of participating in a ring of corruption. The aim of the demonstrations, according to Fuentes Knight, has been to end corruption and renew the national leadership with honest individuals.

Stein stressed the presence of very worrisome signals, which he indicated “give a very ominous portrait of the weakness of the entire public institutional scaffolding.” Latin America is experiencing a new phenomenon, according to Stein, in the “repudiation and vigorous rejection of corruption.” He emphasized that what the populace is looking for is not only for those responsible to be tried, but also for the restitution of that which they stole. A deep structural change in the political system is also necessary, but this is made difficult by the current legal system, which makes it hard to implement reforms in time for the upcoming elections.

The electoral system is currently a hindrance to real reforms. As people have rejected the traditional political parties and their way of doing politics, most electoral institutions have lost almost all legitimacy. Parties no longer function as the intermediaries between society and the state, a relation which is continuously changing. As Stein noted, Guatemala is “living a multifaceted contradiction between the expansion of citizen’s rights, and their growing awareness of those rights” which leads them to exert greater demands on a state that cannot meet these. As Fuentes Knight noted, the September 6 elections would fail to change the political scenario – five members of Congress accused of corruption belong to the party that is positioned to win the elections. In addition, most of those involved in the demonstrations are outspoken urbanites that may lose come election time when poor, rural Guatemalans vote based on clientelistic allegiances. If urban opposition maintains their strength even with the government winning reelection, Fuentes Knight noted that this situation could breed instability and be hostile for the implementation of the Alliance for Prosperity.

The changes that the demonstrators would like to make to the electoral law, according to Stein, focus on greater democracy in the party system, in particular, the implementation of quotas, especially for indigenous populations and women, the transparency of party funds and finances, the end to indefinite reelection and the switching over of parties, and a regulation of the “null vote,” whereby a portion of null ballots that is higher than 50% would trigger a repetition of the election with new candidacies. While Stein supports these reforms, he also noted that the formation of a constitutional assembly could backfire, as the networks of money and corruption that are powered by politicians, private leaders, and organized crime groups could lead to the selection of assembly members that would represent the interests of these groups and not that of the organized sectors of society. Fuentes Knight made recommendations regarding the best ways to improve the political outlook, including: continued support for CICIG, autonomy and financial resources for judicial bodies and the recognition and political support of Guatemalan civil society so that they can continue to engage in their work.

As Guatemalans say, “the 14th at 14:00,” of January 2016 is the end of President Pérez Molina’s term. The President, who believes he was given a popular mandate to govern until the end of his term, has announced that he will not resign. While the US continues to back Pérez Molina, Fuentes Knight argues that this may not be the most conducive policy for stability. According to him, the president’s refusal to resign is contributing to greater political instability in the country and the current governing is further weakening the state – “operative capacity of the government in the social and economic areas has been reduced to a minimum, the fiscal situation has continued to deteriorate markedly, and the credibility in general is nonexistent.” The resignation of the President would transmit the important message that corruption is not tolerated and that all politicians will be held accountable for their actions, thereby creating an atmosphere of hope and change, indicated Fuentes Knight. By contrast, Stein believes that the resignation of the President could result in greater instability, as it would allow the Congress to select a Vice President that would cater to their interests. In representing the interests of Congress and not the people, the resignation of the President could result in a system that is not fully stable.

The intractable and extensive nature of Guatemalan corruption makes it an issue that the country will have to continue to fight for years. Nevertheless, progress is being made, with the help of CICIG, in the identification of corruption. Pressure from civil society and demonstrators can facilitate reforms to improve this situation.

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