Guatemalans go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president and government, but many fear the elections will be tainted by widespread fraud and corruption.
Allegations of vote-buying, unregulated campaign finance and cosy ties between some political candidates and criminals have marred the run-up to one of the most expensive and violent elections in Guatemala’s history.
“Pre-election violence has already claimed candidates, their families, party activists and electoral staff, mostly at the hands of unidentified gunmen,” International Crisis Group says on its website.
Struggling to recover from the legacy of a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, the Central American nation now faces the serious challenge of spiralling violence, much of it blamed on local and Mexican drug gangs.
In recent years, Mexico’s Zetas drug cartel and other criminal organisations have expanded their operations in Guatemala, which is an important transit route for cocaine smuggled from South America to the United States.
In a country with a weak judiciary and institutions, the increasing presence of drug cartels has exacerbated the already widespread problem of political corruption in Guatemala.
Drug bosses and criminals gangs are seeking to win influence over political candidates, and in some cases buy them off, so that they can protect their business interests and drug smuggling routes, analysts say.
“Recent election campaigns have been among the costliest, per capita, on the continent, and spending in 2011 looks set to outstrip even previous records, skewing the playing field and – worse still – leaving politicians beholden to shadowy business and criminal interests, many of which are vested in continued lawlessness and a weak state,” states a June report by the International Crisis Group.
UNREGULATED CAMPAIGN SPENDING
The lack of transparency in campaign finance and little control over private donations made to political parties has created a fertile breeding ground for corruption, local non-governmental organisations say.
Mirador Electoral (Election Watch), a group of local watchdogs monitoring campaign spending and irregularities, says Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the body that oversees elections, has not done enough to enforce campaign finance laws, according to its August report.
The group said the tribunal has not done enough to crack down on several political parties it says have flouted the US$6 million cap that each party can spend on elections.
Public funding for political parties should be increased to make them less dependent on private donations, which can come from illegal sources, local election watchdogs say.
Some Guatemalans have been denouncing election irregularities at an open crowding-sourcing site, where citizens have reported vote-buying, bribery and official documents being falsified from across the country.
With little faith in the country’s politicians, few Guatemalans bother going to the polls. Many see their politicians as corrupt and believe graft across the country’s institutions is pervasive.
Over the years, Guatemalans have seen police chiefs and high-profile officials arrested on drug-trafficking charges. Last month, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ratified the extradition of former President Alfonso Portillo to the United States to stand trial for money laundering.
During the last elections in 2007, the voter abstention rate was over 60 percent, and it is not expected to be much higher this time around.