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The past returns

by Eva-Maria Verfürth


Pérez Molina from Guatemala is supposed to have spent three times as much for election campaigns as legally allowed

Pérez Molina from Guatemala is supposed to have spent three times as much for election campaigns as legally allowed

Central America held two presidential contests in early November. Guatemala elected an ex-military man, while in Nicaragua former guerrilla fighter Daniel Ortega won another term of office. Both countries risk backing off from the rule of law and returning to their past, which was marked by civil wars. By Eva-Maria Verfürth

Democracy in Guatemala and Nica­ragua is still in a fledgling state. Both countries suffered decades of dictatorships and civil war. In Nicaragua, a leftist guerrilla movement eventually ousted the old system. Under Daniel Ortega, their Sandinista party won the country’s first elections in 1984, but they were voted out again six years later. In 2006, Ortega was once more elected president. He has now strengthened his grip on power, and seems intent on shutting down the opposition.

Guatemala saw a fragile peace process after the end of its civil war. Since the return to democracy, the conservative business elite has been running the country most of the time. But never since has a soldier become president. That has changed now. Otto ­Pérez Molina is the first military officer to have prevailed in a democratic contest.

Both countries are drifting in the direction of – opposite – political extremes, and returning to their past. Both the former army officer Pérez Molina and the former guerrilla comandante Ortega fought some of their own people during the civil war. In different ways, each of them may yet endanger the rule of law and undermine human rights in their respective country.

Ortega already violated the constitution, which bans a third presidential term, by running for office once more. Nicaragua’s Supreme Court, which is packed with Ortega supporters, ruled in his favour, by­passing the parliament. International observers complained about a number of irregularities in the election, and none of the four opposition candidates has yet conceded defeat.

Ortega’s Sandinista party FSLN, moreover, gained more seats in parliament; it can now push through constitutional changes on its own. Ortega is likely to make use of that power to run for yet another term in five years.

At first glance, the situation in Guatemala with Pérez Molina seems different. He has promised to strengthen weak state institutions. But his pledges seem far-fetched since he is accused of having ordered massacres during the civil war. He is unlikely to be interested in a strong justice system. Even the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has been investigating him for murder.

It is estimated, moreover, that Pérez Molina spent well over $ 20 million on his election campaign – which is tantamount to manipulation in a country where 50 per cent of the people live beneath the poverty line. The maximum sum allowed by the electoral law is $ 6 million.

Human rights activists are now worried Pérez Molina may stop investigations into the country’s recent past. Further militarisation of Guatemalan society seems likely, and attempts to tackle the real reasons for the country’s social problems will pro­bably stay half-hearted.

It is clear, however, that many Nicaraguans back Ortega in spite of the many concerns. He has reached out to the poor by funding various social programmes. It is equally clear that many Guatemalans want a president with authority. The country has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Many people long for a sense of order. According to research conducted by Latinobarómetro, they are increasingly willing to forget about legal procedures and institutions, and might even accept a military junta.

It is too early to write off democracy however. In Nicaragua, opposition supporters turned out in force to demonstrate against electoral fraud after the votes were counted. Some of Ortega’s supporters from the revolutionary days have turned away from him, because they refuse to support a dictatorship. And in Guatemala, Pérez Molina announced he will strengthen the civilian security forces and continue the social programmes initiated by his predecessor. What that means in practice, remains to be seen.