Between a Rock and a hard Place: The election Torres vs. Giammatei

By: Fredy and Diana Pastor

The results of the first round of general elections in Guatemala were not all that surprising. The candidate for president who led in the majority of polls, Sandra Torres Casanova of the National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza, UNE), gained a wide advantage over her closest competitor, Alejandro Giammattei of the VAMOS party. While Giammattei barely reached 680,000 votes, Torres ended up with 1,121,000, almost double the number of votes. And although the results were not a surprise, to many, the strategy that the UNE used remains still totally unexplainable. How is it that the “most hated” candidate according to public opinion took first place in the Guatemalan general election, despite being the subject of ongoing investigations into links with narcotrafficking?

First, we should remember the history of the party that nominated Sandra Torres: The National Unity of Hope. Founded in 2002 under the ideology of social democracy, the following year it nominated engineer Álvaro Colom as candidate for the presidency in the 2003 elections.

Incidentally, Colom had gotten married in February of the same year. The bride? Sandra Torres Casanova. And though Colom would lose the elections that year, four years later in 2007 he went on to win the presidency. It was during the Colom administration of 2007-2011 that Torres began to stand out as a figure. Under the slogan “time of solidarity,” the Board of Social Cohesion was developed, a driving force for social programs in rural areas. “Doña Sandra,” as she came to be known in internal communications, taking advantage of the social and media impact that the economic assistance programs had, launched a political platform that would have assured her the presidency in the next term. However, her strategy faced an obstacle: Article 185 of the Constitution, which makes it very clear that relatives of the President, even in-laws, cannot run for the office. Torres, in an extreme attempt to be able to participate in the electoral contest, went as far as to divorce the then-president, Álvaro Colom. However, neither the Supreme Court of Justice nor the Constitutional Court condoned her participation, and she was thus unable to participate in the 2011 elections.

Sandra Torres and ex president Alvaro Colom. Foto: Flickr Gobierno de Guatemala.

Unlike nearly all Guatemalan political parties which are born, engage in propaganda, and die (or mutate into another party for the next election cycle), the UNE and Sandra Torres had already gained a lot of experience in the 2003 and 2007 campaigns, and even in the 2011 campaign. For the 2015 campaign (in an atypical election strategy) Sandra Torres, with the way already cleared of prohibitions, remained faithful to her strategy: she assured herself of winning the rural vote with the promise of reactivating economic assistance programs. Although in the end the tides turned for the UNE candidate and Jimmy Morales won the election, Sandra Torres’ arrival to the Presidential Palace seems to be getting closer and closer.

For the current campaign, one of the main strategies used by the UNE and Sandra Torres is the forging of alliances with mayors seeking reelection or candidates who are already well positioned to win. The equation is simple: the party backs them up with a known and concise political platform so that they can rise to or keep power, and, in exchange, the UNE assures itself of local positioning, investing minimally in community organization logistics. The idea seems to work.

For example, in the department of Quetzaltenango, the National Unity of Hope ran candidates for mayor in sixteen of its twenty-four municipalities. Of these sixteen candidates, four were elected for the first time: those in the municipalities of Cabricán, San Juan Ostuncalco, Huitán and Palestina; and three were reelected: those in San Mateo, Colomba and Coatepeque. In five of the seven municipalites where the UNE won the mayoral race, Sandra Torres was the presidential candidate with the most support.

In fact, it could be said that this was almost the case in six municipalities, as in San Mateo the difference between first and second place was merely seventeen votes. On the contrary, in the six municipalities where the UNE did not have a candidate running for mayor, the majority of support in the presidential race was for other parties. Something very similar occurred with the candidates for congressional representatives, where again, in four of the seven municipalities where the UNE won the mayoral race, the support for its congressional candidates was also high. At the national level, the party currently has representatives in 53 congressional seats (a third of the Congress) and more than 100 mayors. Only in Quiché did it win more than half—12 out of 21—of the mayoral races where it ran candidates. The final vote counts could change slightly, as the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (Tribunal Supremo Electoral, TSE) has not published finalized results and given the complaints of faulty vote counting, they could change.

Torres gets followers by social programs during Colom’s government. Foto: Flickr Gobierno de Guatemala.

Sandra Torres and the UNE seem to have clear plans: they bet on their base’s votes in the country’s interior, generated by promises of assistance programs. At the margin of public opinion of many media sources and social networks, the party’s campaign has focused on giving something to lose to those who have never had anything and under this premise, monopolizing the vote. This upcoming August 11th, Sandra will try to win the presidency for the third time and beat Alejandro Giammattei, who for the fourth consecutive time has been nominated for the position, who for the fourth time, counting this election, will have declared himself as candidate for President.

Giammattei’s political story began years before he would run for president in 2007 with the Grand National Alliance (Gran Alianza Nacional, GANA) party. Giammattei, who graduated as a doctor and surgeon, was slowly making incursions into public institutions: he worked in 1982 in the Ministry of Public Health; in the Supreme Electoral Tribunal as Coordinator of Elections in 1985, 1988, 1990 and 1991; in the Department of Public Urban Transport of the Municipality of Guatemala in 1985; and in the Corps of Municipal Firefighters in 1986. Later on, he was a manager at the Municipal Water Company (Empresa Municipal de Agua, EMPAGUA) in 1991 and Private Secretary of the Vice President in 1993. His interest in holding high-caliber political office began with his mayoral campaigns in 1999 and 2003, though he lost in both cases. He returned to hold public office as Director of the Penitentiary System in 2005, which would give him his “ticket to fame in politics,” though not without certain difficulties, as during a contra operation to regain control of the Pavón penal center, he was accused of committing extrajudicial executions, for which he was brought to trial. Nevertheless, he was absolved after staying in prison for 10 months. This gave him a level of popularity in his first presidential election in 2007, in which he took third place.

Alejandro Giammattei and César Castillo on campaing with VAMOS. Foto: Wikimedia Commons – Cocoriki.

In the 2011 elections, Giammattei ran again, but not with GANA but rather the Social Action Center (Centro de Acción Social, CASA). However, his popularity had already cooled down, and for this he was in second-to-last place. In 2014, he used the Strength (Fuerza) party as a political platform but did not win that year either and took fourth place. Now, in 2019, he has been able to place second, right where polls positioned him, due to the fact that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal refused to allow the registration of two candidates who had the support of the majority: Zury Ríos, the daughter of former president Ríos Montt, accused of genocide, and Thelma Aldana, the former Attorney General who presented the accusations that brought Pérez Molina to trial. The annulation of the registration of Edwin Escobar, the candidate from Citizen Prosperity (Prosperidad Ciudadana) also favored Giammattei, as polls also showed him amongst the first few places. With much probablilty, part of the votes that would have otherwise gone to Escobar went towards Giammattei, as both candidates aligned themselves with a conservative right-wing ideology. The strategy with which Giammattei earned a large number of votes was just as distinct as that of Sandra Torres, but similar to the “mano dura” strategy of the former president Pérez Molina (today in jail and facing trial). Giammattei promised “law and order” (like the well-known American police series) for Guatemala, and under this and other premises, won the urban vote in places like Guatemala and Sacatepéquez. Though Giammattei lost in departments like Chimaltenango, Quetzaltenango and Sololá, the margin in the polls was thinner, in contrast with other more rural departments, in which Torres won with a massive victory.

Another strategy that Giammattei has employed has been the use of a series of recurring slogans so that people can identify with him and the party. In this campaign his posters were accompanied by phrases like “now we’re serious (ahora sí vamos en serio)” or “we’re for a different Guatemala (vamos for una Guatemala diferente).” Previously, he used phrases like “There are more of us good guys (los buenos somos más)” or “God bless Guatemala (Dios bendiga Guatemala),” which is notable as the use of simple phrases can have a large impact on electors by creating a certain image. Daniel Eskibel, Spanish political psychology consultant, mentions in an article on his website Maquiavelo y Freud (Machiavelli and Freud): “It is difficult to know the true personality of candidates. We know their public personality, which is one part the real person, one part marketing, publicity and communication, and another part put there by the voters’ brains according to their desires and needs.” G i a m m a t te i expects citizens to identify with him and see him as an ideal Guatemalan, both capable and honorable, just like how he referred to himself in an interview with Fernando del Rincón, a journalist from CNN en español.

Alejandro Giammattei. Foto: Wikimedia Commons.

There are two matters that markedly differentiate the situation of Giammattei and Torres. The first is that the VAMOS party did not obtain as many congressional seats as the UNE (provisionally, according to TSE data, VAMOS won 16 congressional seats and 35 mayoral races at the national level). The second difference is that Giammattei will not just bet on the vote of those who picked him but will also try to win the vote of undecided people. In an attempt to project an image of transparency, Giammattei recently presented his cabinet, which is not common for presidential candidates. However, this could afford him a greater level of confidence from those who already agree with his discourse and voted for him in the first round. In the same way, he can win over the “possible voters” who didn’t necessarily support him in the first round and are not completely convinced by him, but who can cast their vote in his favor as an “anti-Torres protest vote.”

Despite the differences, the candidates also have commonalities, like economic agendas that promote the creation of employment, foreign investment and the establishment of free trade zones. Also, both Sandra and Giammattei are not in favor of the continued operation of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, CICIG) (both have been implicated in cases brought by the Commission). In response to the view of various Guatemalans who have mentioned electoral fraud, the two candidates argue that it didn’t happen, and that the problem is due to technical failures in vote tabulation. Of course, bearing in mind that both achieved the top two positions and will be able to advance to the next ballot, were they to claim that there was fraud, they could put their triumph in jeopardy, and that would be a great risk, considering that whoever loses could be running for President for the last time. The cards are on the table and this coming August 11th, we will find out which of the two candidates will take the coveted presidential office, after both having unsuccessfully trying to attain it for many years.

Cover photo: On the left, Sandra Torres on a previous campaign. Photo: Flickr Elecciones Guatemala 2015. Right: Alejandro Giammattei on a political meeting. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.