Thursday, October 22, 2015

Guatemalan voters are between a rock and hard place (Oct. 22, 2015)

Polls in Guatemala show former comedian Jimmy Morales winning by as much as 60 percent in this Sunday's run-off election with former First Lady Sandra Torres. A poll yesterday shows Morales beating Torres by 30 percent, reports Reuters.

Though Reuters notes that some analysts in Guatemala say that Torres' political experience and the machinery of one of the country's main parties might yield a closer outcome on Sunday than polls suggest.

The comic actor, previously known for performing in blackface and an afro wig was considered a long-shot before the corruption scandal that led to former President Otto Pérez Molina's resignation just a few days before the first round of voting, in which Morales took 24 percent of votes, reports The Guardian.

Morales’s campaign slogan -- "not corrupt, not a thief" -- speaks to the mood of rejection that seems likely to make him Guatemala's next president. While critics say there is little of a platform to analyze, Torres is considered a representative of politics as usual.

But, sadly, neither of the candidates is a great choice, according to a lot of the commentary on news sources Nómada, Plaza Pública and El Perdiódico. Most pieces analyze both options critically and reach more conclusions about Guatemalan democratic systems than recommendations over who to pick.

Nómada, represented by Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, makes the case that newspapers can and should recommend candidates. But in this case, he says the editorial board feels they cannot recommend either candidate. Instead they present (in a video) the most important arguments in favor and against each candidate.

Rodríguez Pellecer notes that Morales had a small and modest campaign, which gives him far more independence from possible donors. And, the main reason for his popularity: since he's never held public office, there are no accusations of corruption against him. This is of course also his great weakness, lack of experience in the public sector. Rodríguez Pellecer also notes that he is looking at the same conservative sectors that backed former President Otto Pérez Molina for potential collaborators.

In favor of Torres, he says is her experience in her husband Álvaro Colom's government from 2008-2011. Her party knows how to move towards objectives, implement policies, and has a party with Congressional backing says Rodríguez Pellecer. He notes the success of the former government with access to health and education which were much improved. She is however an absolute pragmatist, willing to do whatever it takes to reach her objectives, he said, including previous alliances with corrupt sectors. And he criticizes her unwillingness to take on fiscal reform, necessary to pay for government programs.

Those looking for more details might be interested in Plaza Pública's coverage of the presidential debate between the two.

In an op-ed in El Perdiódico writer Adolfo Méndez Vides laments that "most [Guatemalans] know the engine of the car we're driving is damaged, but they prefer to give the job of repairing it to a carpenter before an experienced politician, a mechanic whom for that very reason they will not permit to touch on public affairs again."

In Plaza Pública, a piece traces the history of party politics over the past 30 years of Guatemalan history, arguing that the two options voters are faced with on Sunday are a result of a poor evolution of electoral law. 

The two candidates, together with the TSE, reaffirmed an "Accord for a Transparent, Clean, Pacific and Honest Electoral Process," signed earlier in the campaign. Though both agreed to urge their bases to avoid violence, the meeting was fraught with tension, reports El Periódico. Torres called her opponent a "coward and machista" and said it is "evident he doesn't respect women." She refused to say goodbye at the end of the meeting. Last week the magistrates of the TSE said such attitudes between the candidates promote violence among party supporters.

And the issue is a real one, explains Plaza Pública. While broadly speaking electoral fraud is not an problem anymore, elections have been accompanied by bouts of violence on a municipal level. Over five months of campaigning for the first round, there were 352 reported incidents of violence, according to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) which advises the TSE. The most serious incidents resulted in 25 murders of people associated with political parties. However, it's worth noting that the violence is largely related to municipal politics.

For those concerned with the fate of the Guatemalan spring, the awakening of citizen consciousness that pushed out former President Otto Pérez Molina, the 81 days between the election and the presidential inauguration are critical, argues Ricardo Barrientos in Plaza Pública. Citizens must be alert regarding cabinet decisions, the final bills voted by the outgoing legislature and ongoing corruption cases against lawmakers, mayors and government officials. And they should lobby for important reform bills modifying the electoral law, state hiring, and political parties.

On a more academic plane -- but with obvious impact on real politics -- Luis Mack in Plaza Pública analyzes parallel or informal institutionality in Guatemala.

News Briefs

  • Morales' history with blackface has spurred concern over the prevalence of offensive racist characters in the region, reports The Guardian.
  • In an opinion piece in The Guardian Seth Kaplan praises the role of the CICIG in Guatemala and says the country's "quiet justice revolution shows the way forward" for fragile states around the world. "Anchoring an important institution, such as the judiciary, in a highly legitimate multilateral institution, such as the UN, seems to have made all the difference to Guatemala. Its judiciary now has the autonomy and capacity to hold elites accountable in a way that no wholly domestic entity could. Other government institutions work better, and the population can more boldly demand government reform."
  • U.S. authorities have launched a series of wide-ranging investigations into whether Venezuela’s leaders used PdVSA to loot billions of dollars from the country through kickbacks and other schemes, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • "Embattled" has almost become a mandatory honorific for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in the international press. But it's true. Now she's facing increasingly determined calls to ditch her finance minister, austerity guru Joaquim Levi, from her own left-wing Workers' Party, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The Mexican government announced the capture of six people allegedly responsible for the July prison-break of drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán, including his brother-in-law, the suspected mastermind behind the escape, reports the Associated Press.
  • Thousands of undocumented Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic re still waiting for their pensions according to local human rights groups, reports the Miami Herald. Activists say that many were lured to the DR and wound up in slave-like conditions. Many are facing deportation back to Haiti, but are fighting to stay and collect their retirement checks.
  • The Peruvian justice minister resigned on Tuesday, two days before the Congress was set to vote on censuring him for firing a public prosecutor probing into the First Lady's finances, reports Reuters. Lawmakers criticized President Ollanta Humala's government, calling Julia Principe's sacking a politically motivated attack on the independence of public prosecutors. First Lady Nadine Heredia denies any wrongdoing.
  • A majority of Chileans -- 71 percent -- feel the country needs a new constitution, according to recent poll results. More than half said creating a new constitution should be a priority, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. That's good news for President Michelle Bachelet who launched the beginning of a process of constitutional reform last week, fulfilling a campaign promise to change the dictatorship-era charter (see Oct. 14th's briefs). The president said the drafting of a new Constitution might be done by a Congressional committee; a convention of lawmakers and citizens; or to a specially elected constituent assembly; and suggested citizens choose the method by referendum. 
  • But other reforms Bachelet has proposed to remedy deep-seated inequality -- such as tax reform and free schooling -- stalled as Chile's economy suffers from low copper prices and Bachelet's ratings are hit by corruption scandals, reports The Guardian.
  • A piece in Spain's El País examines how marijuana consumption has changed in Uruguay -- where marijuana clubs have been legal since last year and citizens are permitted to grow up to six plants for personal consumption. Pharmacies will begin selling the drug next year, but already there is a slow decrease in the illegal market in favor of homegrown bud, according to the piece. There are about 3,000 people on the legal registry, though most people with plants in their house prefer to stay off the books, and authorities estimate about 120.000 consumers in the country.
  • The Rio-2016 Olympic Committee sold 240,000 tickets to the upcoming games in just eight hours on Tuesday, reports El País.
  • And the economic and political news in Venezuela might be grim (see yesterday's post) but at least there's a pageant for almost everybody in the beauty-contest crazed country, reports theAssociated Press. That includes the popular Miss Gay Venezuela competition, in which men don elaborate wigs and layers of makeup to show off their skills in what they call "the art of transformation."

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