Analysis: Two elections decided Sunday in Central America produced winners – Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Otto Pérez in Guatemala – who couldn’t be more different. But the victories both show how troubled the isthmus’ democratic institutions really are.
Two presidential elections took place in Central America on Sunday. In Nicaragua, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega was reelected. In Guatemala, retired Gen. Otto Pérez Molina won a runoff with 55% of the vote.
Accredited international observers found that, except for a few incidents, the election in Nicaragua was clean. But there is a major problem with the outcome nonetheless: the Constitution should have prohibited Ortega from running in the first place. Nicaraguan presidents aren't allowed to serve consecutive terms, nor are they allowed to serve more than two in total. Ortega thus should have been barred on both counts, but was allowed to compete thanks to a ruling by the Supreme Court, which he controls.
Venezuelan petro-dollars that the Nicaraguan president uses at his discretion helped his cause as well. Against the left-wing Sandinista party's patron politics, the two conservative candidates didn't stand a chance. According to early results, Ortega – who won 64% of the vote – stomped his closest rival, a 79-year-old radio personality named Fabio Gadea, who won just 29%.
In Guatemala, Gen. Pérez won thanks to promises that he would be tough on organized crime. The outgoing president, Alvaro Colom – a social democrat – disappointed the Guatemalan public in this respect. Pérez benefited as well from not having to face Sandra Torres, Colom's wife, who divorced the current president in order to run. The move backfired. In the end, Guatemala's constitutional court declared her candidacy invalid.
Sunday's contrasting results are revealing, albeit a bit counterintuitive. In Nicaragua, a former left-wing guerilla stands for continuity. In Guatemala, a hard-nosed general embodies change. But what both elections show is that Central America is indeed the hemisphere's weak link. That's something the 2009 coup in Honduras had already demonstrated.
In addition to its entrenched poverty and persistent inequalities, the Central American isthmus now faces pressure from drug cartels and ultra-violent youth gangs, known as "maras." Guatemala, the region's northernmost country, is at the point of collapse, completely infiltrated by criminals. On the other end is Panama, a fiscal haven and ideal place for laundering money.
In El Salvador, a left-wing government called on the army to help address the security problem, just as Mexico's right-wing government was forced to do. In Guatemala, Gen. Pérez promises to do the same thing. Twenty years after Central America's civil wars came to an end, the presence of soldiers in the streets is testament to just how challenged democratic institutions are right now in this long-troubled region.
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