Guatemalans go to the polls on Sunday, September 11, to vote for their president, congressional representatives and mayors. The elections and campaigns in the lead-up are undoubtedly historic moments for Guatemala as they constitute a series of firsts.
With nearly 49 percent of the vote in a recent poll, Otto Pérez Molina of the Partido Patriota (Patriotic Party) seems poised to make history by being the first candidate to avoid a presidential runoff since free elections were introduced with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996. This fact is what dominates national and international headlines.
But Sunday’s election could also mark another first for Guatemala. A potential victory would mean that not only would Pérez Molina be the first ex-general to step into executive office since 1996, but his administration would also usher in the nation’s first female vice president: Roxana Baldetti.
Looking at the prospect of a potential Vice President Baldetti, Iduvina Hernández Batres, executive director of Security in Democracy, a Guatemala City-based nongovernmental organization, commented: “There are women involved [in the political process] because they have either earned those spaces or because the leadership of the party sees the need for a woman to accompany them on the presidential ticket.”
Baldetti, a diputada in Guatemala’s unicameral national congress and a former teacher and journalist, is seen as the driving force nationally and within her party behind the calls for transparency. It has earned the 49-year-old the begrudging respect of her opponents in the Guatemalan Congress.
Other female politicians had emerged for vice-presidential consideration: Raquel Blandón of Libertad Democrática Renovada (Renewed Democratic Freedom—LIDER) and Laura Reyes of Compromiso, Renovación y Orden (Commitment, Renewal and Order—CREO). Sandra Torres, ex-wife of current Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom, and Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú campaigned to be president, while Nineth Montenegro and Ana María de Klein of the nonprofit Madres Angustiadas (Painful Mothers) stood for Congress.
As the former first lady, Blandón has unique knowledge of Guatemalan politics. The ex-wife of Vinicio Cerezo, President of Guatemala from 1986 to 1991, Blandón was picked by presidential candidate Manuel Baldizón as his running mate. Reyes, on the other hand, is seen as part of the next generation to take up the mantle of national leadership. A lawyer by trade, Reyes is director of human rights at Galileo University.
In the previous election in 2007, Menchú was one of the first women since the civil war to step into the political limelight and—simultaneously—open the door for the Indigenous population to enter the national political arena.
It is not just on the campaign trail that women are making their mark. The Tribuno Supremo Electoral (Supreme Electoral Tribunal—TSE), the entity charged with verifying all election material and processes, is led by María Eugenia Villagrán. For the first time, the five-person tribunal has a majority female presence.
The Constitutional Court’s refusal in August to certify Torres’ candidacy, citing the constitutional ban prohibiting family members from running for public office, has had the greatest impact on the election. At the time Torres had roughly 15 percent of the vote and was polling second after Pérez Molina. Her removal from the ballot fractured her supporters and sent what appeared to be a center-right versus center-left battle spinning.
“Those who have the heart for the Left have no one to vote for,” observed Álvaro Velásquez, researcher for Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), a social sciences school in Guatemala City. “The candidate who more or less expressed a challenge to the system was Sandra Torres, and she’s not there.”
Carmen Ibarra, director of the nonprofit civic engagement organization ProJusticia, credits Torres with actively creating more opportunities and social programs to help women and their families.
“I would say that the increased participation of women as registered voters is largely due to the stimulus of [Torres’] social programs introduced to different regions of the country,” said Ibarra. Some of these programs include Mi Familia Progresa, a program supporting poor families in rural or marginalized areas, and Bolsa Solidaria, started in 2008 as part of the Consejo de Cohesión Social Urbano to help provide food for poor households, many of which are run by single mothers.
Still, in a geographical region historically dominated by military rule and autocratic governments, many women have lived the worst excesses of dictatorships and violence in silence. The threat to Guatemalan women’s lives is reflected in the rising numbers of their deaths. In 2005, the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies reported in “Getting Away with Murder: Guatemala’s Failure to Protect Women” an increase in the number of women killed between 2002 and 2004. Groups tracking these murders report that more than 1,000 Guatemalan women were killed between January 2005 and June 2006. “The failure of the Guatemalan state to prevent, investigate or prosecute the murders of women, as well as a history of impunity and a reluctance to adopt legislative reforms, has left Guatemalan women in as much peril as ever before.”
But will the increase in female candidates mean more rights for women overall? Hernández Batres is skeptical. “It’s a positive change to see more [female candidates],” she said, “but this doesn’t necessarily mean more attention to agenda items for women's rights issues.” While Hernández Batres cites some progress in this area, she believes there is a long road ahead before women are able to shape the national agenda around sexual diversity, reproductive rights and safety for all women.
The first step for Guatemala though is more women in elected office—a trend that seems to be on the immediate horizon.