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Elections present a challenge and opportunity for Guatemala

Elections present a challenge and opportunity for Guatemala

July 3, 2019 at 11:00am

As part of an op-ed series, FIU News shares the expertise and diverse perspectives of members of the university community. In this piece, Professor Luis G. Solis, the former president of Costa Rica, writes about his recent experience as chief of the Electoral Observation Mission to Guatemala for the Organization of American States.

By Luis G. Solis

Accusations of fraud have marred the Guatemalan elections for many months. This perception has been fueled by a number of factors, including the predominance of weak institutions, illegal funding, underrepresentation of women and indigenous candidates, political intimidation and even violence (nine candidates killed in the 12 months preceding the elections). Other issues that have caused concern are unlawful registration, meddling of narco interests (one presidential candidate is in jail in the U.S.), a lack of information and insufficient logistical and organizational performance.  

Yet, the biggest concern noted by most observers, has been the use of the law to achieve political goals. That is to say the abusive appeal to election tribunals, prosecutors and judges to interfere in the political process by accusing candidates of unproven wrongdoing, with the purpose of disqualifying them from participating in the elections. Four presidential hopefuls, including two frontrunners, were excluded from the ballot using this mechanism a month before the elections took place.

At the request of the Guatemalan government, the Organization of American States (OAS) sent a mission to observe the election on June 16, I joined a team of 84 experts from 23 different countries who witnessed the process in the nation’s 22 departments, and in two of the four polling centers in the U.S., for the first time in history outside Guatemalan territory. (The OAS Mission’s preliminary report is available on the OAS website).

Electoral missions of the OAS provide impartial observation of the electoral process to help ensure free and transparent elections and strengthen democracy in the region.

Nineteen presidential candidates participated along with thousands of others, seeking for election or reelection in Congress, local office (mayors and council members) and the Central America Parliament. The results of the election favored Sandra Torres (UNE, social democrat), and Alejandro Giammattei (VAMOS, center right), who will go on to a second round, scheduled for Aug. 11. 

Other observers included national and international representatives from civil society, business, academia, religious and multilateral organizations. In total, more than 6,000 accredited observers, including myself, accompanied the elections and provided supervision throughout the country’s 42 square miles (approximately the size of Indiana).

“E” Day was tense and irregularities were committed mostly in the local elections in the interior of Guatemala, in places where the presence of narco activities is pervasive. Likewise, violence did erupt in four rural districts, and denunciations abound regarding vote “sales” and unlawful transportation of voters. 

Even now, the process remains questioned due to serious inconsistencies found in the results, transmitted electronically to the Tribunal of Elections. This is currently under review by the authorities.

Most credible observers, however, have concluded that the results of the presidential elections are valid, and that no fraud was committed. The general opinion is that the official results faithfully reflect the will of the Guatemalan voters. 

Fortunately, the Tribunal of Elections has vowed to clarify all pending issues, particularly those affecting Congressional and local elections, before the second round in August. This should provide additional evidence as to the credibility of the results.

The second round could be greatly improved, though.

Our recommendations include the strengthening of inter-institutional coordination between the security forces; improvement of communications between the Electoral Tribunal and the political parties to ensure transparency; further training of electoral and party representatives in each voting station; verification of the digital results transmission system through timely simulations, etc. 

Other recommendations, particularly those regarding the excessive legal interference in the election, will require several legal changes and possibly, even a Constitutional reform. It will be up to the electoral authorities to adopt these and other suggestions to ensure a better, more peaceful second round. If accomplished, the current challenges will turn into valuable opportunities for Guatemala.