Multiparty Politics in Post-Conflict Guatemala: A Qualitative Assessment 

Papelete TSE 2015

The official ballot for President and Vice-President in the 2015 Guatemalan General elections included 14 participating parties. Source: Soy502 and the Tribunal Supremo Electoral de Guatemala

Posted by Vaclav Mašek, MA Candidate at NYU’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. This post was written in the spring of 2018, based on research funded by the Tinker Grant. 


Following a 36-year armed conflict, which culminated with the Acuerdos de Paz Firme y Duradera (“Peace Accords on Long and Lasting Peace”), Guatemala’s transition to democracy signified the beginning of free and open elections. A new Constitution came into effect in 1984, and twelve years later, the Peace Accords made the ceasefire official between the insurgent guerrillas and the Guatemalan armed forces. While today the strengthening of the political institutions in the country has shown little progress in accountability and transparency—4 out of the 5 last presidents have been accused or sentenced in high-profile cases of corruption—, a lively multiparty system has emerged: in 1995, 19 parties contested in the presidential election, although only one party remains active until today. Twenty years later, in 2015, 14 political parties participated in the presidential contest, where the winner was candidate with no prior experience in public administration running on a party that had never succeeded in having members elected to any position in government.

A particular trend seems to have consolidated in this dynamic process of political alternation: no single party has gained enough traction to secure continuity in the executive. More surprisingly, as the 1999, 2003, and 2015 Guatemalan elections show, some parties that have proved successful in winning the presidential ballot have disappeared from the political map. Populist tendencies, exercised through the practice of clientelism to gain the voter’s gratitude in exchange for a vote, seem to have co-opted both sides of the ideological scale.

May the combination of a multiparty system and a presidential system be inimical to stable democracy in Guatemala? What effect does this have in the way the political system is organized and political parties created? How does the myriad options affect the way Guatemalan citizens cast their vote—and how they do politics in general?

Between March 6th and March 17th, 2018, I travelled to my home country’s capital, Guatemala City, to interview a dozen of engaged Guatemalans. Individuals featured include prominent scholars and political scientists, journalists and political commentators, former statesmen and current government bureaucrats, and activists and lobbyists, whom I talked about issues related to Guatemala’s multiparty system.


The Interviews

On Party-Building

I first met with Roberto González, the 2015 presidential candidate for the Compromiso, Renovación y Orden (CREO) party, who affirmed that creating a political party in Guatemala “is easy”—less than 23,000 signatures, or 0.3% of the registered voters, are required to form a political party. Moreover, González affirmed that parties are “mere vehicles to contest” in elections, since the electors vote for the candidate, and feels “no attachment to the party.” This latter statement was later echoed by several of my interviewees. Prof. Jonatan Lemus of the Universidad Francisco Marroquín’s Instituto de Estudios Políticos y Ciencia Política (UFM-EPRI) and the Escuela de Gobierno (EdG) stated that it is “costlier to run with an old brand than to create a new one.” Adela Camacho de Torrebiarte, the first female Minister of Interior and 2011 presidential candidate for the Acción de Desarrollo Nacional (ADN) party, related the ephemeral life cycle of a party to the “lack of political formation of cadres within party ranks, resulting in an incongruous ideological identification every four years.”

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Interview with Prof. Jonatán Lemus. March 14th, 2018.

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Interview with Adela Camacho de Torrebiarte. March 16th, 2018.

On the Burden of the Armed Conflict

From a historical viewpoint, the executive director of ProJusticia, a coalition of justice initiatives Carmen Aída Ibarra, suggested that the “uncontrollable proliferation of unstable political parties begun in 1995”, when a “new electoral regime” took control of Guatemala’s political dynamics. 19 political parties participated in said elections—a national record at the time. Other interviewees, like former Minister of Foreign Affairs Carlos Raúl Morales, affirmed that the unstable party politics we see today in Guatemala are due to the “unaddressed grievances” from the internal armed conflict from 1960 to 1996, which started being fought on “ideological ground but later turned into an economically-motivated belligerence”.

Prominent urbanist and former candidate for Vice-President Enrique Godoy (@QuiqueGodoy) promptly pointed out that post-bellum Guatemala remains the Central American country with the highest ethnic population—“most of which is economically deprived”—now living under a “corporatists’ democracy.” Carlos Amador, former head of the Comité de Asociaciones Agrícolas, Comerciales, Industriales y Financieras (CACIF), emphasizes the nonsensical nature of the conflict, where the left-wing guerrillas only caused “unnecessary pain to the people of Guatemala without achieving anything.”

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Interview with Carmen Aída Ibarra. March 13th, 2018.

Masek & Morales

Interview with Carlos Raúl Morales. March 15th, 2018.

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Interview with Carlos Amador. March 13th, 2018.

On the Prospects of Constitutional Change

There have been several proposals made to change these structural ailments that continue to weaken democratic institutions in the country. Óscar Chinchilla, the former president of Guatemala’s legislative chamber, the Congreso, made an allusion to the failed Constitutional reforms of 2016 by pointing out that “self-proclaimed nationalists”—a group composed mainly of far-right politicians—were to blame for the failed consensus since they “aimed to dilute the [Congress’] quorum at any cost.”

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Interview with Óscar Chinchilla. March 13th, 2018.

On Ideological Affiliation among Guatemalans

On the question of how to determine ideological affiliation, former human rights ombudsman Jorge de León commented that for the Guatemalan context, three debates are key: “death penalty, abortion, and the individual freedom (the economy).” Radio host from Emisoras Unidas and accountability and transparency activist for the Guatemala Visible organization Marielos Fuentes added “the State’s involvement and stance on human rights as a globalizing doctrine” as other two key components in measuring ideological affiliation. Radio host from Radio con Criterio and outspoken journalist Juan Luis Font suggested that ideological affiliation is “an act of self-definition in terms of prestige—to be right-wing and conservative is to differentiate oneself from all which is indigenous or native.” He concluded by stating a provocative thought: Guatemalans “operate on a profoundly colonial idiosyncrasy.” UFM Professor and co-founder of the Red Ciudadana movement Marielos Chang concurred with this view, stating that the institutional tradition of the country can be traced back to a colonial heritage.”

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Interview with Jorge de León. March 13th, 2018.

Masek & Fuentes

Interview with Marielos Fuentes. March 15th, 2018.

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With the Con Criterio radio show hosts, Pedro Trujillo and Claudia Méndez, following an interview with Juan Luis Font (third, left to right). March 14th, 2018.


Following Steps in Research

The interviews conducted in Guatemala elicited candid commentary on Guatemala’s fascinating political system: its rich history, its dynamic environment, its pivotal players. The qualitative component of my research will surely be benefitted from these 12 interviews, which add a privileged vantage point into party politics and governance in the country. On-site and in-person interactions are able to convey the most vivid images of the social world. By engaging with Guatemalan individuals who are active in the country’s political sphere, the series of intricately connected networks that cut through race, class, religion, and gender become more evident.

Throughout the following months, I will compile theoretical texts to frame the findings from this experience to create a comprehensive literature review, touching upon the determinants of party ID and self-determination of ideology in a left-right spectrum in emerging democracies. I will also finalize my thesis’ statistical analysis, improving the arguments by adding a quantitative element to the research. Using data from the 6 Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) polls from 2006 to 2016, I will be analyzing the evolution of party identification and ideological leaning of voters in Guatemala.

Further Readings:

Ahmed, A., & Malkin E. (2015). Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala Is Jailed Hours After Resigning Presidency. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/04/world/americas/otto-perez-molina-guatemalan-president-resigns-amid-scandal.html?mtrref=www.google.com

Alper, A., & Pretel, E. (2015, Oct. 25). No Joke: Guatemalan comedian wins presidency in landslide. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-guatemala-election/no-joke-guatemalan-comedian-wins-presidency-in-landslide-idUSKCN0SJ04G20151026

Goldman, F. (2015, Sep. 4). “From President to Prison: Otto Pérez Molina and a Day for Hope in Guatemala” The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/from-president-to-prison-otto-perez-molina-and-a-day-for-hope-in-guatemala

Grandin, G. (2000). Class Struggle and K’iché Nationalism. The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation. Durham: Duke University Press.

——————. (2004). The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America and the Cold War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

——————. (2005). The Instruction of Great Catastrophe: Truth Commissions, National History, and State Formation in Argentina, Chile, and Guatemala. The American Historical Review, 110(1), 46-67.

Lupu, N. (2015). “Partisanship in Latin America.” The Latin American Voter (eds. Carlin, R., Singer, M.M., & Zechmeister, E.J.). University of Michigan Press.

Mainwaring, S. (1993). “Presidentialism, Multipartism, and Democracy: The Difficult Combination.” Comparative Political Studies, 26(2), 198-228.

Taylor, M. (2017, Jun. 19). Lessons from Guatemala’s Commission Against Impunity. Council for Foreign Relations – Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program. Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/report/lessons-guatemalas-commission-against-impunity

Weld, K. (2014). Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala. Raleigh: Duke University Press. Print.

WOLA. (2015, Jul. 1). The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala: A WOLA Report on the CICIG Experience. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Retrieved from https://www.wola.org/analysis/wola-report-on-the-international-commission-against-impunity-in-guatemala-cicig/

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