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Guatemala - Government

Two centuries after independence from Spanish rule, Guatemala is still taking shaky steps towards the consolidation of a fragile democracy. Indeed, “consolidated” and “stable” are not adjectives typically used to describe Guatemalan democracy. Other terms such as “low-intensity”, “shallow”, and “monster” have been claimed to be more accurate. Before Guatemala's democratic opening in 1985, Guatemala had only one brief experience with any significant participation, that being the democratic period of 1944-1954. Prior to this, liberal dictators, some more enlightened, many less so, had ruled since a revolution in 1871.

Guatemala has consolidated a procedural democracy, which is impressive given that military governments ruled for decades. But it has become obvious in Guatemala and elsewhere that elected governments do not ensure a true democracy.

During the 20th century, the public sector had been an important mechanism for upward social mobility among the urban middle class in the capital and in the provinces. Beginning in the 1950s, acceptance into the army, teaching, or any government institution -- social security, the ministry of health and finance, the electricity institute, etc. -- equaled job security. The jobs provided a professional career, guaranteed benefits and a peaceful retirement. This, in turn, permitted expectations of supporting a family, education and even higher expectations of social mobility for the next generation, including the creation of savings.

But the state's fragility remained throughout and even deepened during the democratic period (1986-2016). This phenomenon must be understood in the broader context. It resulted from the difficulties of structural adaptation in the face of the demands of a post-Cold War democracy and the challenges of globalization. And, in the Guatemalan context, the development of the state was further hampered by the fact that the state’s very 19th century foundation was as a centrist oligarchy resistant to modern democratic reforms.

The highly centralized Guatemalan state operated under a system of clientelism with institutionalized corruption and racism. It was socially ineffective but extremely brutal and repressive, and it did not enjoy the esteem of society. That is why any private sector crusade against the state -- above all, the opposition to attempts to reform the tax system -- has enjoyed popular support and has mostly succeeded in undermining these government efforts.

Guatemala's 1985 constitution provides for a separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The 1993 constitutional reforms included an increase in the number of Supreme Court justices from 9 to 13. The reforms reduced the terms of office for president, vice president, and congressional representatives from 5 years to 4 years, and for Supreme Court justices from 6 years to 5 years; they increased the terms of mayors and city councils from 2-1/2 years to 4 years.

The president and vice president are directly elected through universal suffrage and limited to one term. A vice president can run for president after 4 years out of office. The Supreme Court consists of 13 justices who are elected by the Congress from a list of 26 qualifying candidates submitted by the bar association, law school deans, a university rector, and appellate judges. The Supreme Court and local courts handle civil and criminal cases. There also is a separate Constitutional Court.

Members of Congress are elected through a modified proportional representation system via the D’Hondt method; 127 members are chosen from lists in 23 electoral districts, and 31 members are chosen from a national list.

In the eighties, Guatemala faces a very particular historical and political conjuncture, internal war is still a reality and the Electoral Registry was the body designated by the Executive to carry out the Elections. It was in 1982 that the history of this institution began to take shape, the de facto government of that time, decreed the Organic Law of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, (Decree 30-83), which is already regulated as an autonomous body, not subject to no other authority. The Court is in charge of convening the National Constituent Assembly, which draws up the Political Constitution of the Republic, in force and which ended formalizing the creation of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

According to this new Political Constitution of the Republic, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal was created to be responsible for regulating everything related to the exercise of citizens' rights: political organizations, the exercise of political rights and organization, and functioning of the electoral authorities. From its creation to date, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal is responsible for the organization of 20 electoral processes, all in a satisfactory manner, because the Constitution, the Electoral and Political Parties Law, and the popular will have been guaranteed.

The entire rule of law apparatus, including the Public Ministry, the Police, and the judiciary, are extremely corrupt. The constitution and the law provide for an independent judiciary. The judicial system failed to provide fair or timely trials due to inefficiency, corruption, insufficient personnel, and intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses. Judges, prosecutors, plaintiffs, and witnesses continue to report threats, intimidation, and surveillance, most often from drug-trafficking organizations.

The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, the presumption of innocence, the defendant’s right to be present at trial, and the right to legal counsel in a timely manner. The law requires presentation of a court-issued warrant to a suspect prior to arrest unless police apprehend a suspect while in the act of committing a crime. Police may not detain a suspect for more than six hours without bringing the case before a judge. Authorities did not regularly respect this right and did not promptly inform some detainees of the charges against them. The law provides for access to lawyers and bail for most crimes. The government provides legal representation for indigent detainees and detainees have access to family members.

Guatemala City and 331 other municipalities are governed by elected mayors or councils. Guatemala has 22 administrative subdivisions (departments) administered by governors appointed by the president. The constitution in articles 254 and 257 gives to the municipalities authority over social services provision and to issue ordinances and regulations, as well as assigning them 10% of the central government's revenues. The constitutional reforms package put to referendum in 1999 put forward the idea of municipal and community development councils. The rejection of these reforms once again left the development councils system crippled. But in 2002 the Law of Decentralization passed, and newly revised versions of the municipal code and development council system, with the long hoped for municipal and community level councils included.

In order to strengthen social participation, the Law on Development Councils was issued, Decree No. 11-2002 dated March 12, 2002, establishing that development council systems are the main means of Participation of the Maya, Xinca, Garifuna and non-indigenous population in public management to carry out the process of democratic development planning, taking into account the principles of national, multiethnic, pluricultural and multilingual unity of the Guatemalan nation.

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