WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
23 Oct 2015 | Commentary

Guatemala’s Elections Highlight Need for Accountability, Anti-Corruption Reforms

Guatemalans go to the polls on October 25 to elect a new president. The vote comes at a turning point in the country’s history. When tens of thousands of people took to the streets earlier this year, the message was unmistakable: Guatemalans are sick of corruption and the lack of accountability for those in power, and ready for a change from politics as usual.

This message has been at the center of the campaign of both of the candidates in the runoff vote, Jimmy Morales of the National Convergence Front (Frente de Convergencia Nacional, FCN) and former first lady Sandra Torres of the National Unity of Hope, (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza, UNE). Morales is a television comedian with no political experience, and is running under the campaign slogan “not corrupt, not a thief.” Torres, despite her clear non-outsider status, has also sought to position herself as a vocal anti-corruption crusader.

SEE ALSO: A New Era of Accountability in Guatemala?

Currently, polls suggest that Morales is the front-runner. An October 9-14 survey by the polling firm ProDatos and published by Prensa Libre found the FCN candidate in the lead with 68 percent support compared to 32 percent for his rival.

Poll numbers aside, there is good reason for both candidates to campaign on an anti-corruption ticket. The recent protests were sparked by a massive multimillion-dollar corruption scheme that reached the highest levels of government, uncovered by the country’s United Nations-backed anti-impunity watchdog, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión International contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, CICIG).

In April, the CICIG and Guatemalan public prosecutors identified a criminal network involved in a longstanding arrangement in which officials charged importers bribes in exchange for lower import taxes. More than a dozen officials have been arrested for their involvement in the case since, and both the former Vice President Roxana Baldetti and former President Otto Pérez Molina stepped down after being linked to the arrangement.

But even as Guatemala tries to move on from this scandal, serious doubts about both presidential candidates have already emerged. Although Morales enjoys a reputation as being anti-establishment, his FCN party was founded by retired military officers implicated in human rights abuses linked to the country’s armed conflict. And reports have found that more than a third of his campaign’s funds had been linked to powerful military officers and their companies. Torres, for her part, is also facing questions about her party’s funding. The CICIG released a report in July that alleged the UNE had received money from questionable sources during the administration of former President Alvaro Colom, Torres’ husband.

Fortunately, the events of the past several months have shown that Guatemalans will likely hold their new president to tough standards. The protests preceding Perez Molina’s resignation were the largest in the country’s recent history, and brought together Guatemalans from all walks of life. On August 27, an estimated 100,000 Guatemalans participated in a general strike that included universities, schools, businesses, unions, indigenous groups and civic groups, forming the basis for a powerful grassroots anti-corruption movement.

Whoever wins the October 25 vote will also have to respond to citizen’s demands to advance anti-corruption measures and much needed political and institutional reforms. These include legislation to push for greater judicial independence and campaign financing reforms, amid other transparency and anti-corruption measures. This is no easy task, especially since the next president will have to deal with a divided Congress.