Guatemala's elections Nov. 9, 2003: Bizarre Politics
HANCOCK -- Guatemalans will hold Presidential elections on November 9, 2003. In a bizarre twist of politics, the leader of the currently ruling FRG (Guatemalan Republican Front) party is a presidential candidate. Former military dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt is widely recognized as the mastermind of the scorched earth policy during his regime in 1982-83, when over 19,000 people suffered war-related deaths or disappearances.
In two separate cases, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchú Tum and an organization of massacre survivors, the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, have brought legal cases against Ríos Montt, charging him with genocide and crimes against humanity.
Ríos Montt took power in 1982 through a coup d’état. Guatemala’s constitution bans former coup participants from running for President. Since 1990 a total of 55 judges have upheld this constitutional rule in spite of Ríos Montt’s claim that the rule should not apply to him since he took power before the constitution was written. But in a highly controversial July 14th ruling by the Constitutional Court he has been allowed to register as a candidate. The ruling is widely believed to have been manipulated by the
After the ruling was announced, several appeals were filed by other political parties and protests were organized by civil society. In response, Ríos Montt declared that he cannot control the actions of FRG’s affiliates, insinuating that there would be violence. Several days later, on the 24th and 25th of July, riots financed and coordinated by FRG officials rocked Guatemala City. Three thousand rural campesinos and state workers were forced or paid to travel to the capital. Once in the capital, masked people with radios, some identified as members of the FRG, the government, or the army, handed out sticks, clubs,
gasoline and tires to besiege the Supreme Electoral Court, the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, el Centro Empresarial, the offices of the daily newspaper El Periódico, the house of a Constitutional Court magistrate who had voted against the registration of Ríos
Montt and the house of former president Alvaro Arzú.
During the riots, journalists were one of the main targets for attack, resulting in many injuries and the death of one journalist.
The presidential hopeful has his share of outspoken critics, though, particularly among human rights advocates. In June, an angry crowd in Rabinal pelted Ríos Montt with stones and bottles, incensed that he dared show up in town for a campaign rally on the eve of the reburial and commemoration service for the exhumed remains of massacre victims.
The U.S. government, which supported Ríos Montt during his regime, has stated that it would be difficult to maintain a normal relationship with the ex-ruler due to his human rights record. Nor is Ríos Montt a friend to big business, whose leaders prefer candidates who would attract rather than upset foreign investors.
Some human rights activists are anxious to see Ríos Montt run -- and lose. A defeat at the polls would likely deal a blow to his power and influence. However, even if he loses resoundingly on voting day, the CC ruling in favor of Ríos Montt indicates pro-military leanings among members of the highest court and does not bode well for legal efforts that seek justice for human rights violators.
Note: The above article was compiled from the Report on Guatemala, Summer 2003, by Alexandra Durbin, and from various sources by other
staff of NISGUA (Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala). For more
NISGUA news, visit their Web site.
Editor's Update: A Reuters story in the Nov. 9 New York Times
reported the election has been marred by violence, with nearly 30 people killed.
Before polls opened, Rolando Morales, a campaign director for one of the leading
candidates, Alvaro Colom, 51, was shot in the leg outside his home. Read
See also a summary in English of the election as of 6:48 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9
on the Chiapas
Independent Media Web site.
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