In mid-2015, tens of thousands of ordinary Guatemalans poured into the streets to protest against a multimillion-dollar corruption scheme at the highest levels of government and demand reform. By September, key ministers and advisers had been fired. The nation’s president sat in jail.
But today, two years after that euphoric demonstration of people power, little has changed in the structural dynamics that have perpetuated so much ill in the country. Indeed, the nation’s politics continue to be characterized by a weakly institutionalized party system at the service of vested interests and often permeated by dark money.
Such is the view, at least, of Edgar Balsells, a professor and former Guatemalan finance minister who participated in a recent IDB conference on policymaking in Latin America. In that conference and in a soon-to-be-published paper, Balsells argues that the weaknesses of the party system are at the core of many of the problems of his native country and that reforms are desperately needed to forge a new direction.
A strong party system, has long been seen as key to government capacity. In work pioneered by the IDB and a few outside collaborators in the early 2000s, such a system was seen as one in which there would typically be a small number of well-organized and programmatic (or ideological) parties which would endure over time and represent relatively consistent policy positions. Such parties, thought of as strongly institutionalized, would increase democratic accountability. Moreover, they would help ensure that important policies lasted over changes in government.
Guatemala’s weakly institutionalized party system
Guatemala’s party system represents the opposite of that ideal. It is among the most weakly institutionalized in all of Latin America, with the average age of a political party at only 6 years, and well over a dozen of parties competing in every election, most of which represent little or nothing in terms of ideology. Indeed, since the return to democracy in 1985, not a single political party has returned to power at the presidential level. Many, including the two largest parties as of 1999, have disappeared altogether.
That transience and lack of ideas means that legislators often change political affiliation in the course of their career. More importantly, it means that political parties don’t represent voters policy preferences. Rather they to tend to run of pork barrel promises and serve those who put up the money. Those generally are not ordinary citizens. They are powerful political and business interests from the traditional oligarchy and local bosses (caciques).
Guatemala, in this sense, stands in sharp contrast to El Salvador, where the left-wing FMLN and right-wing ARENA have strong brands, national networks, and highly-disciplined organizations and where the dominance of the two parties over the last 25 years has provided much needed stability.
The role of the party system in low social indicators
The consequences for Guatemala are dramatic. Inadequate institutions and governance, in which the weak and volatile party system plays a major role, contribute to disturbingly low social indicators. Those according to a 2016 report by the United Nations Development Programme include a mean of six years of schooling, and rates of poverty that have increased to 76%, with 35% in extreme poverty. Meanwhile, corruption and the influence of drug money in elections continue to blight the political system, according to Balsells.
Reforms, including in the areas of campaign finance, could make a big difference, Balsells says. So could greater centralization of planning and regulation of government operations (to take power away from corrupt local elites) along with greater democracy at all levels. And the international community, he says, should strongly condition aid to those reforms being enacted.
If there is a silver lining to the story, it lies in the local prosecutors, who together with a United Nations-backed commission, have cracked down on corruption. It lies with the huge number of citizens, non-governmental organizations and other civic groups that rose up in 2015 to demand cleaner politics and a government more responsive to the needs of its people. Those, however long reform takes, are pillars to build on.
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