Guatemala’s Election Commission Prepares for Critical 2015 Vote
By Ana Santos, IFES Program Manager
In a ceremony held in Guatemala City on May 2, 2015, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) of Guatemala officially called for general elections to be held on September 6, 2015. An estimated eight million Guatemalan voters will go to the polls to elect 3,959 public positions, including the next President and Vice President, 158 members of Congress, 20 representatives to the Central American Parliament, and Mayors and Local Councils in its 338 municipalities. The September general elections come amid a deep political crisis that has seen Guatemalans out in the streets demanding the resignation of President Otto Perez and Vice President Roxana Baldetti after a large corruption scandal was unveiled within the Tax Administration Agency, which implicated the head of the agency and other individuals close to the Perez administration.
While the full ramifications of this scandal on the general elections remain to be seen, it is expected that the ruling Patriot Party will come out of the elections weakened. Since the scandal broke, the presidential candidate of the Patriot Party, Alejandro Sinibaldi – who was in second place in the most recent polls – withdrew his presidential bid and resigned from the party. Likewise, a number of Mayors and Congressmen who were expected to seek re-election followed in Sinibaldi’s footsteps and left the party, with some defecting to join other political parties including the Renewed Democratic Liberty Party and the National Unity of Hope. While Sinibaldi’s political future remains uncertain at this moment, his next step – whether he joins another political party as a candidate or takes a hiatus from electoral politics – will have a significant impact on how the race plays out in the upcoming months, as his supporters are likely to be influenced by his final decision and could sway the race.
This comes on the heels of a very contentious pre-election campaign period between the TSE and the political parties, set by an unprecedented push by the electoral authorities to hold political parties accountable. The TSE has been strongly enforcing campaign finance regulations, issuing sanctions and suspending political parties for non-compliance with the law, which no previous election commission had done before. Indeed, the TSE issued at least 73 sanctions on 11 political parties, and imposed its largest fine on the Patriot Party for $250,000 (USD), accusing the party of improperly campaigning by placing the images of potential candidates on 2,500 bags of food from the government social program “My Safety Bag.” Now that the election period is officially underway, the TSE has announced a campaign spending limit of about $7.6 million (USD), which each party will have to abide by. Given the emphasis of the electoral authorities on curtailing campaign finance violations during the pre-campaign period, it will be sure to redouble its efforts to monitor the parties during the campaign period and issue sanctions for those in non-compliance.
Furthermore, the elections will be taking place within a context of increased insecurity due to cultural, social and economic factors that contribute to conflicts between different actors vying for power in the country, including illicit actors who have a particular interest in the outcome of the local elections. The number of electoral-related violence incidents has begun to rise against potential candidates, voters, and other political actors linked to the process, which has resulted in at least one death, various altercations between sympathizers of different political parties, and even a break-in at the TSE’s Departmental Office in Petén. The TSE is coordinating general elections security, including safeguarding election infrastructure and materials, with government security agencies and other relevant stakeholders.
Through the Consortium for Elections and Political Processes (CEPPS), funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) is assisting the TSE to strengthen its capacity to counter political violence and better regulate campaign finance. Also, through the project, IFES, along with its CEPPS partners will promote increased participation of cisgender and transgender women, youth, indigenous people, and people with disabilities for a more inclusive and peaceful process. To that effect, U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Todd D. Robinson recently signed an agreement between the Guatemalan electoral authorities and USAID to formalize this support. In April, IFES Vice President of Programs Michael Svetlik met with TSE Chairman Rudy Pineda to discuss IFES’ ongoing assistance to the TSE. With much at stake in the September general elections, the TSE, with IFES support, is working to ensure that all Guatemalan citizens have the right to have a say in how they are governed.