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Guatemala - 2003 Election

The 09 November 2003 elections pit Guatemala's past (represented by General Rios Montt and his authoritarian vision of Guatemala rooted in the armed internal conflict) against the region's future (represented by Oscar Berger and Alvaro Colom, and their vision of private sector-driven economic growth, free trade and social justice). All indications were that Guatemalans would reject Rios Montt's vision of Guatemala, and turn out in large numbers on November 9 to vote for change. The ruling FRG's attempts to manipulate the vote did not appear to have made much of an impact, though many in the opposition continue to believed Rios Montt's candidacy tainted the legitimacy of the elections. Fears of election day fraud had largely vanished, and violence was expected to be limited to a small number of rural locations.

There continued to be problems with the voter registration list ("padron") which could have the impact of confusing some voters on election day, but no one expected these problems to be significant. No candidate was likely to get 50% of the vote, forcing a runoff election on December 28. Guatemalans were becoming more enthusiastic about the election process as the prospect for change was growing, and turn-out is expected to be high.

Former General and patriarch of the ruling FRG Efrain Rios Montt had been a polarizing force in Guatemala politics for much of the past thirty years. His authoritarian populism, sprinkled with moral injunctions and liberal references to class struggle, always had a following in Guatemala, especially among the rural poor. While viewed by the international community as the perpetrator of some of the worst human rights violations committed during the internal conflict, he was viewed by many Guatemalans as having restored order during a convulsive period in their history.

In 1974 it is widely believed that he was deprived of the presidency by fraud, and at least during the initial months of his 19 month presidency in 1982-1983 his government was very popular. Polls showed that he would have won the presidency by a large majority had he been allowed to run in 1990, when the courts first struck down his candidacy. In the last three elections, Rios Montt was the polarizing force. His candidates won in 1990 and 1999, and lost by the smallest of margins in 1995. At 76 years of age, this was almost certainly the final battle of his political career, and he continued to define the political debate in Guatemala.

But times had changed for the General. The FRG's four years in power left many voters believing that Rios Montt could not and cannot deliver the promised land of better security, more jobs and improved social justice he offered in 1999. Indeed, violent crime and corruption spiraled during the FRG's time in office, and most Guatemalans have not seen the benefits of anemic economic growth.

Surveys conducted in July and again in October 2003 by the US Embassy in the most remote corners of the heartland of Rios Montt's support revealed an overwhelming rejection of the ruling party, and made no distinction between President Portillo and the General. Voter preference polls showed him running a distant third, 16 points behind second place candidate Alvaro Colom. While the professional polls are frequently accused of having an urban bias, it was clear from every measure that Rios Montt is fighting an uphill battle to make it into the second round of the election. The FRG's superior organizational ability on election day and their payoffs to the ex-PAC's and other election spending could get them over the hump into the second round, but it looked like a long-shot.

The vision Rios Montt tried to sell Guatemalans during the election campaign was one of providing law and order, and confronting the oligarchy that, in his words, had long run Guatemala like their own farm. While security and social justice are issues of importance to a large majority of Guatemalan voters, Rios Montt's appeal to confrontation was increasingly viewed as a legacy of the civil war, a vision drawn from Guatemala's past, and not the choice of Guatemalans for their future.

His primary competitors for the presidency are center-right GANA candidate Oscar Berger, closely allied to the private sector, and center-left UNE candidate Alvaro Colom, with closer ties to grass roots civil society. Berger's message of job creation through investment and free trade appealed to Guatemalans (especially in urban areas) who believe the country's future lies in a stronger relationship with the U.S. and regional economic integration. Colom's message of combating corruption and increasing social spending resonated in rural areas and with the urban poor. Most voters identified with Berger and Colom mainly as alternatives capable of defeating Rios Montt, and showed less enthusiasm for the candidates themselves.

Past misbehavior by the FRG (especially their violent protests that shut down parts of the capital in July 2003) fueled popular perceptions that fraud was possible. Stories of missing voter registration cards, dead people, minors and Salvadoran nationals appearing on voter registration lists, allegations that the FRG contracted all public transportation on election day, and problems with voters finding their names double registered or eliminated from the voter registration lists are part of every conversation on the elections.

The political parties and international observers agreed, however, that adequate safeguards are in place to ensure free and fair elections, and all acknowledge that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) was above partisan manipulation. There will be over 300 international and thousands of domestic observers spread out all over the country, making this the most observed election in Guatemala's history. International observers has been deployed in rural areas for over a month now, visiting potential flash-points, meeting with local leaders and making it clear that fraud and violence would not go unreported.

The voter registration list ("padron electoral") had problems resulting, among other things, from the incomplete incorporation of a new registry for urban areas, which was designed to allow voters to vote closer to their homes. Problems have been detected which will affect some voters on election day, and the TSE will be opening special "observed vote" tables at each voting site to address many of these problems. The indelible ink should also ensure that double registrations do not result in double voting. Some voters would encounter difficulties voting, and many would view this erroneously as a deliberate attempt to manipulate the vote.

The decision by the Constitutional Court in July 2003 to allow General Rios Montt to be a candidate, in apparent violation of a constitutional prohibition against those who had participated in unconstitutional governments, was for many Guatemalans the original sin that fatally flawed the 2003 election. Unable to stop a legal process that was carefully manipulated by the FRG, many in civil society, the media and the opposition raised alarms publicly about every subsequent issue that could potentially be an FRG attempt to influence the elections, in order to have a well documented basis for crying fraud if the General made it into the second round.

Many of their complaints were valid. The compensation package for the ex-PAC's was clearly used to try to build support for the FRG in the elections. When the GOG came through with actual cash payments for less than half of those who claimed to be ex-PACs, however, protests broke out around the country, ultimately working against the FRG candidate. The school breakfast and fertilizer programs were also augmented during the election year in a thinly-veiled attempt to earn largely rural support. Public works programs, while admittedly less than the election year binge of the former Arzu government, also targeted areas where the FRG hoped to strengthen its support. An independent NGO investigating election year public spending, working under a USAID grant, concluded that while the Portillo government had used public spending to try to influence the outcome of the election, the volume of spending was not significantly different from previous election years and beneficiaries were not selected for their partisan preferences.

Violence was also a concern in the 2003 elections. By some counts, 29 political activists had been murdered since the May opening of the election campaign. All of the international observer groups investigated these murders, however, and agree that most were clearly not related to the elections. MINUGUA believes that five could have been politically motivated, and the OAS listed two as being clearly politically motivated. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) in its report on the elections said, "relatively few have been proven to be directly related to the political campaign. Many of the incidents involved "common" rather than "political" crime. It is reassuring that there have been few documented incidents of politically motivated violence, and it is important to counter alarmist opinions and to emphasize the relatively peaceful nature of the process to date."

The violent protests of July 24-25, orchestrated by the leadership of the FRG, fed fears that the FRG is capable of putting gangs on the streets either on election day to discourage the vote, or to burn ballot boxes on the night of November 9 if they lose. Many of our contacts believe, however, that the July protests hurt the FRG in the elections by making them look to voters like a band of thugs. Since July, the FRG had been careful to convey an image of law abiding democrats.

Poll results showed the gap between front runner Oscar Berger and Alvaro Colom narrowing decidedly. No candidate was expected to get the fifty percent of the vote necessary to win the election in one round. The second round election would be held on December 28, less than three weeks before the January 14 inaugural. If Rios Montt made it into the second round, all indications were that the election would polarize, with an overwhelming majority voting for whichever candidate competed against the General. If Colom and Berger made it into the second round, the election would become an unpredictable contest with a totally new dynamic. Polls showed Berger beating Colom by a declining margin in a second round, but even Berger's closest advisors did not put much faith in the numbers.

Public opinion polls showed that Guatemalans believe they can make a difference in their future by voting and that they plan to vote in record numbers in the upcoming elections. While polls had historically overstated the actual voter turnout, trends suggested that voter turn out will be significantly higher that the average (around 45%) since the restoration of democracy. An early November poll also shows an increase in public confidence in the electoral process.

The participation of Rios Montt in the elections created a climate of tension and distrust that has fed fears in many sectors of civil society and the population at large that elections would not be free and fair. With polls showing the General pulling a distant third, many of those sectors were convinced that Rios Montt would not make it into the second round, and if he did there was virtually no chance he could win it.

Many Guatemalans believed the November 9 elections will put an end to 20 years of political polarization, and that the candidates that emerge will no longer reflect the authoritarian structures and policies evolved from the internal conflict, but rather will bring Guatemala into a closer relationship with the U.S. and their regional partners through free trade and a greater set of shared interests.

Oscar Berger of the Grand National Alliance (GANA) party won the November 9, 2003 presidential election, receiving 54.1% of the vote. His opponent, Alvarado Colom Caballeros of the National Unity for Hope (UNE) party, received 45.9% of the vote.

President Oscar Berger took office in January 2004, elected by a center-right coalition (GANA). A former businessman and Mayor of Guatemala City, President Berger brought to his administration a cadre of respected and proven leaders with credibility and integrity. The Berger Administration advanced a broad set of reforms that have improved transparency and accountability, spurred economic growth, increased investment in education and health, advanced public administration reform, and secured vital legislation necessary for more effective administration of justice. These achievements reflect the Administration's success in building political momentum for reform among civil society, the private sector, and even among disparate political parties.

Despite the Berger Administration's progress on many other fronts, the security situation remained critical. Gangs and narcotraffickers are responsible for much of the current crime wave, and Guatemala remains a major conduit for northbound cocaine and heroin. The National Police were widely viewed as corrupt and ineffective; citizens at times took the law into their own hands.

Efrain Rios Montt, the former Guatemalan dictator who led the country from 1982 to 1983, died 01 April 2018 aged 91.

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