REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Voters on Sunday were choosing presidents in Guatemala and Nicaragua, two Central American countries where democracy has been dramatically weakened by violence and political abuse.
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega, a onetime Sandinista revolutionary who now professes to be a born-again Christian, looks set to be reelected, though he had to eviscerate the constitution to do it [link in Spanish].
In Guatemala, Mexican drug cartels have besieged the government, rendering a virtual failed state that neither presidential candidate -- retired army Gen. Otto Perez Molina nor Manuel Baldizon, a lawmaker and businessman -- appears equipped to reverse. Perez had the edge going into Sunday’s vote.
Pessimism runs deep in both nations.
“The main question today is not what the election result will be but, rather, what level of legitimacy will be given a reelection achieved under the shadows of a process that was fraudulent from the beginning,” Nicaragua’s Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a former Sandinista and longtime critic of Ortega, wrote in the magazine he edits [link in Spanish].
“In Nicaragua, the branches of government have been subjected to party control and lack the least bit of autonomy,” Chamorro wrote.
Ortega called on Nicaraguans to “vote without fear.” He retains a solid following among some in the middle and lower classes who have benefited marginally from his government’s largesse. And, in contrast to the Sandinista governments he led in the 1980s, Ortega has avoided alienating the business elite.
But most of his former Sandinista associates, plus a wide array of human rights and women’s groups, social activists and political moderates, oppose him bitterly. [link in Spanish]
The Nicaragua constitution forbids a person from serving as president more than twice, and from succeeding himself or herself. Ortega was ineligible on both counts. But since his second election as president in 2007 (after an earlier stint 1984-90) Ortega succeeded in placing supporters in key posts on the courts and electoral bodies. Last year the Nicaraguan Supreme Court, at Ortega’s behest, ruled that term limits were unconstitutional, clearing the way for the 66-year-old to run again.
Ortega’s opponents in Sunday’s race are Fabio Gadea, an 80-year-old media entrepreneur once sent into exile by the Sandinistas, and Arnoldo Aleman, a disgraced former president once jailed for corruption.
In Guatemala, Perez Molina and Baldizon have been engaged in a sharp-elbowed runoff campaign. Perez Molina won the September vote but without the needed majority. Baldizon came in a distant second.
The vote comes at a moment when escalating drug crime threatens the nation's feeble justice system. Doubts hang over both candidates
The rightist Perez Molina promises to use army troops to attack traffickers and says he will cut the homicide rate in half, while the populist Baldizon has called for greater use of the death penalty.
Perez Molina, who commanded troops against leftist guerrillas during Guatemala’s 35-year civil war, has long faced accusations of war crimes against civilians in the conflict that ended in 1996. Critics fear the mano dura or iron-fist approach that he is promising could spell a return to the repressive practices of right-wing governments. Elements of the military are also suspected of having links to drug traffickers and organized crime.
Perez Molina denies the war crimes charges and says he has no plans to return to army rule. He also has denied reported ties to crime figures.
Any militarization would spell a major setback to Guatemala’s efforts to recover from the war and build a working civilian democracy, efforts already under threat from drug traffickers.
“Overall, the levels of violence and the threat of allowing the institutional corruption of the country to deepen are the biggest threats to Guatemala’s democracy,” said Cynthia Arnson, a Latin America expert at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center. “The situation has gotten qualitatively worse over the last several years as narco violence has spread from Mexico.”
-- Tracy Wilkinson and Ken Ellingwood
Photo: A campaign billboard in Managua shows Daniel Ortega last week. Credit: Reuters