Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

A Bad Election Menu for Guatemala: The Iron Fist and Conjugal Continuismo

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Authors: Daniel Altschuler and Javier Corrales

Sometimes in an election, voters have to choose the lesser evil. Democracy is imperfect, and so are candidates.  But the two apparent front-runners for Guatemala’s upcoming presidential election in September are worse than imperfect candidates; they reflect deeply troubling trends in Latin American politics—the Iron Fist and conjugal continuismo.

The front-runner, Otto Pérez Molina, signals a frightened population’s willingness to cede power back to a military that devastated the country.  Pérez’s rise seems predicated on the promise of resuscitating coercive means of the past in response to crime in the present.

The second candidate, First Lady Sandra Torres de Colom, represents the trend of sitting presidents seeking to extend their reign.  Since the 1990s, many Latin American presidents have tried to relax or abolish term limits.  They try various strategies.  The current Guatemalan president’s chosen method for circumventing term limits is conjugal continuismo–nominate his wife as his chosen candidate.

Both candidacies are troublesome for democracy.  Mr. Pérez, a retired army general, played a central role in Guatemala’s armed conflict, in which state forces killed as many as 200,000 people.   Pérez once led the notorious military intelligence unit and has been implicated, though never charged, in conspiring in the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi.  In his last presidential campaign, he used his strong man image to launch a platform of mano dura, a clenched fist, to combat crime.   In Latin America, at the moment, not just in Guatemala, there is demand for more heavy-handed responses to crime, undoubtedly one of the region’s most serious urban problem.  But when this demand occurs in a country the military remains fairly unaccountable, the result could be a serious deterioration of civilan control of the military.

Pérez’s candidacy represents more than just a call to end crime; it raises the specter of ongoing impunity and the military’s political return.  His unabashedly pro-military stance will make it even harder to bring military leaders to justice for crimes during the armed conflict.

Moreover, an Iron Fist policy could expand the military’s policing role, which would likely produce excesses of military power in the name of security.  Plagued by gangs and organized crime, Guatemalan voters understandably want a strong response.  But the prospect of Mr. Pérez’s election raises serious concerns about the military’s political resurgence.

Currently, the First Lady appears to be Mr. Pérez’s principal challenger, offering a more social democratic platform.  Since coming to office, she has overseen President Alvaro Colom’s flagship human development programs.  Popular spouses working on social programs, a la Laura Bush or Michelle Obama, can benefit politicians and voters.  But promoting your spouse as a candidate is a crass method of using the incumbent’s advantage to circumvent term limits.

In Latin America, the incumbent’s advantage is peculiarly strong.  Since the 1980s, only two incumbents allowed to run have lost.  Even ex-presidents have a huge advantage: one in every two elections in Latin America that allow ex-presidents to run has featured an ex-president, and they often win.  (In fact, ex-President Alvaro Arzú has announced his intention to run in Guatemala, as well, though it’s unclear that he can legally run).   Term limits have been a useful way to check the power of sitting and former presidents.

Latin America’s tradition of constitutionally-mandated term limits and rules against political nepotism exist for a reason. Latin Americans suffered for generations under the power of all-powerful strongmen who favored their inner circles.  Term limits have helped inject some rotation at the top of the political establishment.

Many incumbents and their followers hate term limits.  They thus try different tricks to overstay their welcome, including referenda, co-opting the courts, and spending their way into popularity.  Colom’s conjugal continuismo represents the latest trick.

Conjugal continuismo is an Argentine export.  In the mid 2000s, then-President Néstor Kirchner selected his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, as his successor.  This was a clever ruse to achieve continuity by keeping power within the same bedroom, while arguing that Mrs. Kirchner offered political renewal. But rather than renewal, conjugal continuismo brings repetition:  As happened in Argentina, the new first husband likely remains the de facto president—or that is how the people will perceive things.

Either case—a de facto or a perceived ghost president—augurs poorly for democracy.  Under conjugal continuismo, power is kept behind the scenes and official authorities’ credibility remains questionable.  Such a nebulous power structure creates obscurity at the top, while undermining the democratic aim of maximizing transparency.  Moreover, it blocks leadership renewal across the political system.

Torres’s candidacy will face a legal challenge given a current prohibition against relatives of the president running to fill that office.  But, whatever the outcome, this Kirchner-like push from the First Couple is noxious.  If voters want to change re-election rules, they should hold an open public debate, and the leading parties should negotiate concessions.  But using one’s spouse to perpetuate power reduces the credibility of the process.

On its face, conjugal continuismo may seem less threatening than the military’s possible return. After all, Latin American militaries killed many hundreds of thousands of people in recent decades, and sending generals back to the barracks was the principal victory for Latin American democracies in the 1980s and 1990s.

But the Iron Fist and conjugal continuismo actually exemplify the same vicious cycle: unhealthy institutions breed unhealthy politics, which in turn further damage institutions.  Perez’s candidacy shows how weak institutional capacity to contain crime spurs demand for a more coercive apparatus, which can further weaken civilian control of the military.  Torres’ candidacy shows how weak institutions of checks and balances allow for an over-concentration of power in the executive. This, in turn, further undermines checks and balances, makes the ruling party more obsequious, and polarizes government-opposition relations.

Democracies require renewal of leadership, else they go stale.  In Guatemala, where a former military leader and the president’s wife will likely dominate the election, such renewal has become deeply improbable.

*Daniel Altschuler is a Copeland Fellow at Amherst College and a doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar*Javier Corrales is professor of Political Science at Amherst College and author of Presidents Without Parties: the Politics of Economic Reform in Argentina and Venezuela in the 1990s.

Tags: Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina, Sandra Torres de Colom
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