2003-11-06 19:42:00
Embassy Guatemala
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E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/06/2013

Classified By: PolCouns David Lindwall for reason 1.5 (b) and (d).



E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/06/2013

Classified By: PolCouns David Lindwall for reason 1.5 (b) and (d).

1. (C) Summary: The November 9 elections will pit Guatemala's
past (represented by General Rios Montt and his authoritarian
vision of Guatemala rooted in the armed internal conflict)
against the region's future (represented by Oscar Berger and
Alvaro Colom, and their vision of private sector-driven
economic growth, free trade and social justice). All
indications are that Guatemalans are rejecting Rios Montt's
vision of Guatemala, and will turn out in large numbers on
November 9 to vote for change. The ruling FRG's attempts to
manipulate the vote do not appear to have made much of an
impact, though many in the opposition continue to believe
Rios Montt's candidacy taints the legitimacy of the
elections. Fears of election day fraud have largely
vanished, and violence is expected to be limited to a small
number of rural locations. There continue to be problems
with the voter registration list ("padron") which could have
the impact of confusing some voters on election day, but no
one at this time expects these problems to be significant.
No candidate is likely to get 50% of the vote, forcing a
runoff election on December 28. Guatemalans are becoming
more enthusiastic about the election process as the prospect
for change is growing, and turn-out is expected to be high.
The prospect for change also offers opportunities to advance
key U.S. objectives, and we should be prepared to engage
quickly with the two finalists that emerge from Sunday's
election. End summary.

Putting the War Behind Them Once and For All

2. (C) Former General and patriarch of the ruling FRG Efrain
Rios Montt has been a polarizing force in Guatemala politics
for much of the past thirty years. His authoritarian
populism, sprinkled with moral injunctions and liberal
references to class struggle, has always had a following in
Guatemala, especially among the rural poor. While viewed by
the international community as the perpetrator of some of the
worst human rights violations committed during the internal

conflict, he is viewed by many Guatemalans as having restored
order during a convulsive period in their history. In 1974
it is widely believed that he was deprived of the presidency
by fraud, and at least during the initial months of his 19
month presidency in 1982-1983 his government was very
popular. Polls showed that he would have won the presidency
by a large majority had he been allowed to run in 1990, when
the courts first struck down his candidacy. In the last
three elections, Rios Montt was the polarizing force. His
candidates won in 1990 and 1999, and lost by the smallest of
margins in 1995. At 76 years of age, this is almost
certainly the final battle of his political career, and he
continues to define the political debate in Guatemala.

3. (C) But times have changed for the General. The FRG's
four years in power have left many voters believing that Rios
Montt could not and cannot deliver the promised land of
better security, more jobs and improved social justice he
offered in 1999. Indeed, violent crime and corruption have
spiraled during the FRG's time in office, and most
Guatemalans have not seen the benefits of anemic economic
growth. Surveys conducted in July and again in October by
the Embassy in the most remote corners of the heartland of
Rios Montt's support revealed an overwhelming rejection of
the ruling party, and made no distinction between President
Portillo and the General. Voter preference polls show him
running a distant third, 16 points behind second place
candidate Alvaro Colom. While the Embassy's sample was not
scientific, and the professional polls are frequently accused
of having an urban bias, it is clear from every measure that
Rios Montt is fighting an uphill battle to make it into the
second round of the election. We do not discount the
possibility that the FRG's superior organizational ability on
election day and their payoffs to the ex-PAC's and other
election spending could get them over the hump into the
second round, but at this point it looks like a long-shot.

4. (C) The vision Rios Montt has tried to sell Guatemalans
during the election campaign is one of providing law and
order, and confronting the oligarchy that, in his words, has
long run Guatemala like their own farm. While security and
social justice are issues of importance to a large majority
of Guatemalan voters, Rios Montt's appeal to confrontation is
increasingly viewed as a legacy of the civil war, a vision
drawn from Guatemala's past, and not the choice of
Guatemalans for their future.

5. (C) His primary competitors for the presidency are
center-right GANA candidate Oscar Berger, closely allied to
the private sector, and center-left UNE candidate Alvaro
Colom, with closer ties to grass roots civil society.
Berger's message of job creation through investment and free
trade appeals to Guatemalans (especially in urban areas) who
believe the country's future lies in a stronger relationship
with the U.S. and regional economic integration. Colom's
message of combating corruption and increasing social
spending resonates in rural areas and with the urban poor.
The Embassy surveys (in rural areas) found that most voters
identified with Berger and Colom mainly as alternatives
capable of defeating Rios Montt, and showed less enthusiasm
for the candidates themselves.

And the Dead Shall Rise

6. (C) All the major candidates have told us privately that
they do not expect significant fraud on election day.
However, past misbehavior by the FRG (especially their
violent protests that shut down parts of the capital in July)
has fueled popular perceptions that fraud is possible.
Stories of missing voter registration cards, dead people,
minors and Salvadoran nationals appearing on voter
registration lists, allegations that the FRG contracted all
public transportation on election day, and problems with
voters finding their names double registered or eliminated
from the voter registration lists are part of every
conversation on the elections. The political parties and
international observers agree, however, that adequate
safeguards are in place to ensure free and fair elections,
and all acknowledge that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE)
is above partisan manipulation. There will be over 300
international and thousands of domestic observers spread out
all over the country, making this the most observed election
in Guatemala's history. International observers has been
deployed in rural areas for over a month now, visiting
potential flash-points, meeting with local leaders and making
it clear that fraud and violence will not go unreported.

7. (C) The voter registration list ("padron electoral") has
problems resulting, among other things, from the incomplete
incorporation of a new registry for urban areas, which was
designed to allow voters to vote closer to their homes.
Problems have been detected which will affect some voters on
election day, and the TSE will be opening special "observed
vote" tables at each voting site to address many of these
problems. The indelible ink should also ensure that double
registrations do not result in double voting. We recognize,
however, that some voters will encounter difficulties voting,
and many will view this erroneously as a deliberate attempt
to manipulate the vote.

8. (C) The decision by the Constitutional Court in July to
allow General Rios Montt to be a candidate, in apparent
violation of a constitutional prohibition against those who
had participated in unconstitutional governments, was for
many Guatemalans the original sin that fatally flawed the
2003 election. Unable to stop a legal process that was
carefully manipulated by the FRG, many in civil society, the
media and the opposition have raised alarms publicly about
every subsequent issue that could potentially be an FRG
attempt to influence the elections, in order to have a well
documented basis for crying fraud if the General makes it
into the second round. Many of their complaints are valid.
The compensation package for the ex-PAC's was clearly used to
try to build support for the FRG in the elections (note: When
the GOG came through with actual cash payments for less than
half of those who claimed to be ex-PACs, however, protests
broke out around the country, ultimately working against the
FRG candidate. End note). The school breakfast and
fertilizer programs were also augmented during the election
year in a thinly-veiled attempt to earn largely rural
support. Public works programs, while admittedly less than
the election year binge of the former Arzu government, have
also targeted areas where the FRG hoped to strengthen its
support. An independent NGO investigating election year
public spending, working under a USAID grant, concluded that
while the Portillo government has used public spending to try
to influence the outcome of the election, the volume of
spending was not significantly different from previous
election years and beneficiaries were not selected for their
partisan preferences.

Throwing the First Stone

9. (C) Violence has also been a concern in the 2003
elections. By some counts, 29 political activists have been
murdered since the May opening of the election campaign. All
of the international observer groups have investigated these
murders, however, and agree that most are clearly not related
to the elections. MINUGUA believes that five could have been
politically motivated, and the OAS lists two as being clearly
politically motivated. The Washington Office on Latin
America (WOLA) in its report on the elections said,
"relatively few have been proven to be directly related to
the political campaign. Many of the incidents involved
"common" rather than "political" crime. It is reassuring
that there have been few documented incidents of politically
motivated violence, and it is important to counter alarmist
opinions and to emphasize the relatively peaceful nature of
the process to date."

10. (C) The violent protests of July 24-25, orchestrated by
the leadership of the FRG, fed fears that the FRG is capable
of putting gangs on the streets either on election day to
discourage the vote, or to burn ballot boxes on the night of
November 9 if they lose. Many of our contacts believe,
however, that the July protests hurt the FRG in the elections
by making them look to voters like a band of thugs. Since
July, the FRG has been careful to convey an image of law
abiding democrats. Members of the Executive Committee of the
FRG visited us and other members of the international
community on November 3-4 in a gesture that showed that the
FRG is concerned about its international image. They assured
all of us that they will respect the outcome of the election,
whatever it is, and Zury Rios told us directly "we will
behave" on election day. While we do not discount the
possibility of post-electoral violence in hotly disputed
municipal elections in isolated areas, as has occurred in
past elections, there are no indications at this point that
the FRG is planning to dispute the November 9 results in the

The Inevitable Second Round

11. (C) Poll results (and the Embassy's informal survey in
rural areas) show the gap between front runner Oscar Berger
and Alvaro Colom narrowing decidedly. No candidate is
expected to get the fifty percent of the vote necessary to
win the election in one round. The second round election
would be held on December 28, less than three weeks before
the January 14 inaugural. If Rios Montt makes it into the
second round, all indications are that the election will
polarize, with an overwhelming majority voting for whichever
candidate competes against the General. If Colom and Berger
make it into the second round, the election becomes an
unpredictable contest with a totally new dynamic. Polls show
Berger beating Colom by a declining margin in a second round,
but even Berger's closest advisors do not put much faith in
the numbers. A group of private sector and civil society
members, who by and large had thrown their lot in with Berger
as the only candidate capable of burying the FRG, told us on
November 6 that they now believe Alvaro Colom would beat
Berger handily in a runoff election.

12. (U) Public opinion polls show that Guatemalans believe
they can make a difference in their future by voting and that
they plan to vote in record numbers in the upcoming
elections. While polls have historically overstated the
actual voter turnout, trends suggest that voter turn out will
be significantly higher that the average (around 45%) since
the restoration of democracy. An early November poll also
shows an increase in public confidence in the electoral
process. Generating public confidence in the election
process has been a key element in the Ambassador's public
diplomacy strategy over the past 2-3 months.


13. (C) The participation of Rios Montt in the elections has
created a climate of tension and distrust that has fed fears
in many sectors of civil society and the population at large
that elections would not be free and fair. With polls
showing the General pulling a distant third, many of those
sectors are now convinced that Rios Montt will not make it
into the second round, and if he does there is virtually no
chance he could win it. We believe leaders of the FRG may
have reached the same conclusion and have adjusted their
strategy to use their legislative strength in the new
Congress to protect their interests, as we reported in
September. Fears that there will be significant fraud or
violence on election day are subsiding.

14. (C) Many Guatemalans believe the November 9 elections
will put an end to 20 years of political polarization, and
that the candidates that emerge will no longer reflect the
authoritarian structures and policies evolved from the
internal conflict, but rather will bring Guatemala into a
closer relationship with the U.S. and their regional partners
through free trade and a greater set of shared interests. We
are poised to meet early on with the transition teams of the
two victors of the November 9 elections to engage them on
CAFTA, human and labor rights, transnational crime and the
full range of bilateral interests.