Guatemala: A Glimpse at its Governmental Structure
The government structure is probably not a fun topic for most people. If you’re like me, it brings back memories of my least favorite class in high school – U.S. history. I just could not get interested in the different acts passed, what order the presidents were in, or how the government came to be structured as it is today. I was, however, fascinated by world history; I loved learning about faraway countries and cultures, so different than my own.
Now, I have lived in Guatemala for over 5 years. When I first moved here, I thought that the culture wasn’t that different, but the longer I live here, the more I learn about what makes this culture unique – and one thing that stands out is the election process. Who knew that it was so interesting? I surely didn’t.
Before I go into those details though, let’s take a look at the general governmental structure in Guatemala and how similar it is to what we have in the United States.
Guatemala is considered a constitutional republic and has three governing bodies: the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
As you might already know, Guatemala is run by a president and vice president, just like in the U.S. They are both elected for 4-year terms. Interestingly enough, the president is not allowed to run for office again, but the vice president is after a 4-year respite.
This branch handles the laws and is comprised of the congress. El Congreso de la República has 158 members, who also serve 4-year terms.
There are two groups that form the judicial branch: the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Justice. The Corte Constitucional has five judges that exclusively handle constitutional matters. These judges are chosen for 5-year terms by different government groups, one being the president. The Corte Supremo de la Justicia, which is the highest court in the nation, has 13 members who also serve for 5-year periods.
Besides the three main branches, there are numerous other officials who govern locally. Instead of states, Guatemala is divided into 22 departments, or departamentos, and each one has a capital. Be careful when talking about these capitals, though! In Spanish, you don’t use the word capital, but instead cabecera departamental, which means ‘department head.’ The president chooses a governor to run each of these departments. The people, though, elect mayors, or alcaldes, for each of the 340 municipalities in Guatemala. You can compare these municipalities, municipalidades, to the counties that divide each state in the U.S. The mayors are allowed to run for office as many times as they wish.
Sadly, Guatemala has had a rocky ride when it comes to politics. If you would like a complete list of all the past presidents, click here. In short, ever since Guatemala’s independence from Spain in 1821, the government has been plagued by corruption. From 1960-1996, the country suffered from a bloody civil war, which the people are still recovering from. There have been multiple military takeovers and coups, the most recent being in 2015.
Each of these major historical events warrants their own blog to go into the detail of what happened, but we will go into more depth at a later date. The main idea that you need to understand in regard to politics is that this country has suffered a lot of corruption, and the people are tired of it.
Elections – A long and festive process
One way that the population is trying to combat this corruption is by forming their own political parties and promoting individuals who they believe to be just and fair. There are currently 19 political parties – yes, 19! New ones are constantly being created, and political candidates have run for president as part of various political parties. As someone who grew up in the States, I was shocked to hear how many parties there were – and just how many people supported each one!
If you look at this image of the preliminary results (with 97% of the votes counted, not quite the final results) of the most recent election, you can see that there were a significant number of votes for 10 of the 19 parties. Now, whether these results are accurate is a whole other question! What this shows, however, is that it is difficult for a president to be chosen by popular vote because the voters are splitting their votes between almost 20 candidates. This leads us to one of the most interesting things about Guatemalan elections (in my opinion!).
If one single candidate does not win 51% or more of the popular vote, the country will hold another election, or segunda vuelta, between the two candidates that won the most votes. This happens months after the first election, and the results can be quite surprising. If one person won 49% of the votes, and the next highest percentage of votes was 10%, those two people would go head-to-head in the segunda vuelta. It may seem unfair because there seems to be a clear favorite; however, the outcome is not a given.
Just like in the States, talk about the election begins long before the actual election day. However, in Guatemala, the campaigning begins only a couple of months beforehand. Now, these campaigns are very interesting. While the candidates do visit different cities and neighborhoods and give out free things such as food and building supplies, the general population also shows their support by heading a lot of the campaigning. They paint their favored political party’s logo on every possible surface, from houses and walls to cliff sides on the highway. They march (rain or shine) on the side of the road and have parades with blaring music. All of this is done not only for presidential candidates but also for local mayors. As you might imagine, the campaign time is a bit overwhelming, since the election day is the same for the mayors and the president! With so many political parties and numerous candidates (both local and national), there are a lot of festivities leading up to election day.
As I have mentioned, I have lived in Guatemala for a good while now. I was here for the 2015 protests and removal of the president, as well as the following two elections. However, I did not pay much attention to politics during those first issues in 2015. I am now married to a Guatemalan who takes the time to answer my thousand questions about what is going on. So, in this most recent election of 2019, I was a lot more aware of what was actually happening.
Sandra Torres (UNE): 22.1%
Alejandro Giammattei (Vamos): 12.1%
Edmond Mulet (PHG): 9.8%
Thelma Cabrera (MLP): 9.0%
Roberto Arzú (Pan – Podemos): 5.3%
There are a couple of interesting things to note about this election. Firstly, the top two candidates who won the most votes are the ones who have their party’s logo on literally everything. As a foreigner, if you asked me to name some political parties, I would say UNE and Vamos, as I have seen their propaganda all over the country on every paintable surface. Guatemala is a developing country, and the adult literacy rate is only 79%. This means that a large portion of the country is not educated on political matters, and they will probably not read or research about current issues. So, in order to get the people’s votes, political parties make sure their names and logos are the most well-known across the country through visual propaganda and giving the people gifts. Throughout the campaigning process, both presidential and mayoral candidates were giving away food and construction materials to meet the people’s immediate needs and therefore win their vote.
Another important point is the number of votes that Thelma Cabrera won. Now, you may be thinking that 9% is almost nothing, but with 19 candidates and the largest percentage being 12%, Thelma’s 9% is noticeable. She is one of the very few Mayan women that have run for president, and she won a significant number of votes on her platform for indigenous rights. While she didn’t win, she sure made history in fighting for the rights of the indigenous people groups.
So, who won? Sandra Torres looks like a clear favorite in the primera vuelta, but did she manage to win again against Alejandro Giammattei? The answer is no. Giammattei won the segunda vuelta this past August with 58% of the votes. He will take office in 2020, while the current president, Jimmy Morales, continues as president for the rest of this year.
The Big Picture
As in any country, the factors contributing to different political views are countless. If you are interested in politics, I would encourage you to read further using the linked articles so you can learn more about the big issues being addressed by current Guatemalan politicians. Yes, some of these articles are in Spanish! This will be the perfect opportunity to strengthen your Spanish skills in a practical way! If you have any vocabulary questions while reading these articles, be sure to ask your Spanish teacher in your FREE trial class with us! ¡Sigue aprendiendo!