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Window-Dressing Electoral Reforms Fail Guatemala

By: Luis Eduardo Barrueto - Oct 2, 2015, 11:03 am
Guatemalans protest outside the office of the TSE. (Twitter)
Guatemalans protest outside the offices of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to demand reform. (@mmendoza_ca)

EspañolFollowing months of political crisis and citizen protests in Guatemala, the people’s discontent with the level of corruption and traditional politics translated into an oft-cited phrase: the problem is not the people, it’s the system. And so it is.

This is why many civil-society and opinion leaders within the country have been advocating for reforms to the Electoral and Political Parties Law, central to the operation of the political system.

The main problems of Guatemala’s electoral politics are, to be sure, the opacity with which parties are financed, the absolute lack of authority from the Electoral Tribunal to enforce the rules of the game, and the internal organization of political parties — most of them could do with some internal democracy.

However, the problem is that the congressmen in charge of passing any meaningful reform are the same ones who have the most to lose by doing so. Consequently, none of the above mentioned issues made into the proposal approved by Congress on Thursday, October 1.

Brushing Corruption under the Rug

The proposal passed with 124 votes in favor out of 158, and must now go through a consultation with the Constitutional Court. The court will then decide which articles are valid or unconstitutional. However, even if they pass, they will provide no respite for Guatemalans who are looking for an end to corruption.

The reform would allow Guatemalans abroad to vote for president, vice president, and representatives to Congress and Parlacen (Central American Parliament). It also aims to double the size of the payment that the state doles out to political parties for each vote obtained in an election, from US$5 to $10.

Furthermore, it forces a political organization to unify its bank accounts, and disclose the lists of its sponsors and the amount they contribute to the campaigns.

While the proposed measures are not necessarily bad, they are merely bait for the electorate to distract itself from the important issues: there was no serious effort to change the electoral system to make it more representative, nor to significantly alter the ways parties finance their activities.

A Serious Reform, Nowhere to Be Seen

Many in Guatemala complain about the common practice whereby elected congressmen shift from one party to another, known as transfuguismo. The reform seeks to end this practice by prohibiting congressmen from switching parties if they resign their party affiliation.

Moreover, if a lawmaker holds other positions in Congress — on a special committee, for example — and chooses to resign from his party, another member of Congress from the same party can replace him.

However, this is merely a prescription to treat symptoms, rather than the disease. No blanket prohibition against transfuguismo will do if the turncoats’ incentives to secure benefits for themselves and their financiers are not removed from the system.

But none of this was addressed in the congressional debate, as 19 of the 31 proposed measures in the reform were included at the last minute and without proper debate.

As analyst Jahir Dabroy told El Periódico, this was a strategic move to divest themselves of all responsibility, as it is now the Constitutional Court, and not Congress, that must decide which articles are constitutional and which are not.

It seems Congress is trying to preserve its privileges, and getting away with it.