Corruption in the Guatemalan Political System and the 2019 Elections

By Adriana Beltrán and Adeline Hite | http://www.wola.org

Background

Guatemala has made important, hard fought gains for judicial independence and the rule of law. But in an attempt to hold onto power and avoid prosecution, corrupt alliances are whittling away at this progress. New electoral reforms are proving difficult to enforce in a tense political climate and uncertainty looms as candidates with dubious records are printed on ballots. While newcomers fight for a more inclusive Guatemala, violence is a constant threat.

On Sunday, June 16, Guatemalans will head to the polls to elect a new president, vice-president, members of congress, municipal authorities, and representatives to the Central American Parliament. In this general election, all 158 legislative seats and 340 mayorships will be on the ballot. If no presidential candidate wins the first round with more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round will be held on August 11. The elected president and new authorities will assume office on January 14, 2020.

POLITICAL PARTIES IN GUATEMALA

Guatemala’s political institutions have been known for being weak, fragmented and unrepresentative. Political parties are unstable and short-lived, often created as electoral vehicles rather than ongoing associations. Costly election campaigns have further corroded the political system, leaving politicians winning financing from, and finding themselves indebted to criminal interests or powerful business elites looking to gain access to public resources and contracts. According to a 2015 CICIG report, Guatemala’s political parties derive around half of their financing through unreported donations intended to buy influence. Some 25 percent of this illicit financing comes from wealthy elites and businesses, 25 percent from organized crime, and the other 50 percent from state contractors. Politicians from various levels of government rely on quid pro quo relationships with both licit and illicit actors to remain in political power and reap the benefits that follow that power. Political parties are unstable and short-lived, often created as electoral vehicles rather than ongoing associations.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s investigation and subsequent April 17 arrest of presidential candidate Mario Estrada is illustrative of the extent to which organized crime and special interests have infiltrated the country’s political system. According to the DEA, Estrada offered the Sinaloa cartel access to Guatemala’s ports and airports to import cocaine into the United States.1 In return, Estrada solicited cartel funds to finance a criminal scheme that would ensure him the presidency, that included the assassination of his political rivals.

Estrada had a long political career, serving as a member of Congress and later in the Alfonso Portillo administration (2000-2004). Given this trajectory, Estrada is known to be a part of many political circles. Just days before his arrest, Estrada reportedly took part in a meeting with current President Jimmy Morales and many cabinet members at his farm.

Attempts to Reform the System

Born out of the 2015 mass mobilizations against corruption, civil society agreed that in order to address some of the major issues within the Guatemalan political system, the Law on Political Parties (Ley Electoral y de Partidos Políticos, LEPP for its Spanish acronym) must be reformed. Facing immense pressure from these mass mobilizations, the Guatemalan Congress ultimately passed many, but not all, of civil society’s suggested reforms to the electoral law. At their core, the reforms hoped to bring broader transparency, representation, and parity of diverse sectors in Guatemala to modern day politics. Ultimately, the new law imposed heightened restrictions on campaign financing, regulated paid publicity of campaigns, and addressed issues of party switching within Congress. 2019 marks the first major election to unfold under these new laws.

Campaign Financing

Illicitly financed campaigns are central to maintaining the political status quo and are a means to facilitate the quid pro quo bargaining that deprive Guatemalans of their right to representative democracy. Investigations carried out by the public prosecutor’s office and the CICIG unearthed the profound impact that illicit campaign contributions had during the 2015 presidential campaign. Investigators uncovered millions of dollars in undeclared campaign contributions in the form of cash contributions, donations of equipment and vehicles (including helicopters), and in-kind services. The amount of undeclared contributions to the political party Líder totalled more than $2.8 million (Q21 million), and other parties such as UNE and FCN-Nación were also implicated.

As part of the reforms passed in 2016, Guatemalan authorities allow private campaign contributions to political parties so long as these financial backers register with the electoral tribunal (TSE). Registering with the TSE serves two major purposes; 1) it allows for the public to be informed about how much money is raised by a particular party and 2) it allows the public to know what kind of forces are backing each particular party. While both serve to create to a more transparent process, the latter is significant in a country like Guatemala where political campaigns, especially races in the rural parts of the country are sometimes illicitly backed by criminal organizations that wish to continue exerting influence over the region.

Transfuguismo

Another practice by which members of Congress hold on to power is through party switching or party crossing, a practice known in Guatemala as transfuguismo. Before the 2016 reforms, party membership meant little, and members of Congress were able to jump from one party to another at any time during their term, without running on a separate party’s ticket during a scheduled election. This often meant that members of Congress would switch to parties where they could wield the most political influence and/or where they would have a better chance for reelection. For example, in the 2015 election, only eleven members of Congress who were registered with FCN-Nacion were elected to Congress. Morales, who was elected president in 2015, was also a member of FCN-Nacion. By November of 2017, 26 members of Congress had defected from other parties and joined the party of President Morales. Many of these members switched over from the Líder party, formerly headed by Manuel Baldizón, a presidential candidate during the 2015 elections who is currently imprisoned in the United States for crimes related to the Obredecht scandal. Another handful of the new FCN-Nacion members came from the Partido Patriota party, headed in 2011 by former President Otto Perez Molina, who is now in prison facing grand corruption charges.  

The reforms require members to wait until they are no longer in office before they can officially run under the banner of new party. However, the reform has been ambiguously interpreted by the electoral tribunal, which also complains that it lacks the capacity to fully implement the transfuguismo ban. As a result, various members who had participated in party switching have been allowed to run again, undermining political stability and members’ accountability.  

Communications and Paid Publicity

Another significant change to the electoral law deals with the way that campaigns can advertise for their candidates via paid publicity. The reforms intend to provide a fair playing field among parties by equally distributing campaign advertisements. The law requires media outlets to register with the TSE in order to air electoral content. Parties must register with the TSE and the TSE then manages the parties’ political advertisements on these outlets. While groups have criticized this reform as an attack on freedom of expression, the intention is to require complete transparency on the part of the political party as well as the media outlet.

In Guatemala, media ownership is concentrated in the hands of very few media moguls with undue political and commercial influence. One of the most blatant examples of the relationship between power and the media in Guatemala was seen during the 2011 presidential campaign of former president Otto Perez Molina. The Attorney General and CICIG found that owners of media company Albavision allegedly funneled over $23 million in campaign contributions in exchange for 69 percent of government television advertising during Molina’s time in office from 2012 to 2015. An Interpol red alert was issued in 2016 for Alba Lorenzana, legal representative of Albavision and wife of media mogul Angel Gonzalez; she has yet to be captured. Gonzalez currently owns four major television channels in Guatemala and dozens of others around Latin America.

The new communication reform also regulates how much each party spends on advertisement. Each party now has a cap of $3.8 million on its 2019 campaign, which is lower than the authorized cap of $7.6 million the 2015 elections. The official campaign period was shortened to a period of 90 days and candidates must cease paid publicity two days before the election, on June 14, 2019. In this environment, the ability of the TSE to restrict and register political advertising is intended to contribute to an environment of greater transparency.

Implementing Reforms

The 2016 reforms were highly anticipated and provided Guatemalan institutions with the legal power to address some key aspects of corruption in politics. However, the 2019 elections process has raised doubts as to whether the political will and the resources exist to ensure that the reforms are fairly and acutely implemented. Where this could have the most impact is at the local and congressional levels. Article 113 of Guatemala’s Constitution establishes that the electoral authorities must evaluate the eligibility of each candidate, disqualifying candidates with past convictions. But the TSE has ruled inconsistently when vetting candidates. According to a group of local civil society organizations, at least 150 candidates running for Congress have questionable credentials. 

Illustrative of the Tribunal’s inconsistency, was its decision to deny the candidacy of former president Alfonso Portillo due to his criminal record, while deciding not to revoke the candidacies of candidates with well-known criminal profiles. For example, Jose Armando Ubico, arrested and sentenced to 46 months in prison for trafficking heroin in 2003, has served in the Guatemalan Congress since 2015 and is running for reelection in his district of Sacatepéquez. The TSE’s inability to properly or impartially vet many local candidates for mayor and Congress may leave space for candidates under investigation or with criminal records to be elected and, once in office, have immunity.

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