What the Recent Elections Say About Democracy in Central America

The recent elections in Guatemala and Nicaragua were notable for their relative lack of controversy, despite the conclusion of virtually all independent analysts that the former risks a return to the violence of the past and the latter was contrary to Nicaragua's own constitution.

In Guatemala, former military intelligence officer Otto Perez Molina was elected in the second round of balloting, largely on the premise that Guatemala has been overrun by drug corruption and violence and his promise to do something about it. Cartel-related violence has become the top concern of Guatemalans across the spectrum, and Perez Molina's background as a comparatively progressive military officer unafraid to discuss the use of force to take back the country was compelling for voters. Of course, in the context of Guatemala's turbulent and violent history, the election of Perez Molina is remarkable, as it was the army in which he made his career that was responsible for mass killings of its own citizens in the fight against the brutal URNG guerrillas.

The election of Perez Molina and the implicit rehabilitation of the army, however, ultimately represents less a vote in his favor than a referendum on the stark reality of today's Guatemala, a nation that has sunk into virtual ungovernability. Corruption is rampant; impunity too. According to reports, drug traffickers hold sway in the huge Peten region, which has little state presence. Many of the police are on the cartels' payrolls, most of the rest are simply ineffective. The courts are overwhelmed. Guatemala is a failing state.

The nation remains a democracy, but democratic sustainability requires more than elections. Guatemala's task, along with others of its Latin American neighbors, is to develop effective democratic institutions that go beyond periodic elections. In the meantime, a spike in violence is almost certainly assured as the government, under a Perez Molina government, ramps up the fight against drug trafficking.

In Nicaragua, ironically, the situation is reversed. Institutions there are durable, including the police and security forces which have acquitted themselves well in the fight against drug trafficking and crime. Economic growth is strong, in part due to an effective utilization of significant assistance from Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, and relative prosperity is on the increase.

It is largely as a result of Nicaragua's growing economy that Daniel Ortega was re-elected this month to a second consecutive term, in violation of Nicaragua's own constitution. Ortega's candidacy was allowed by a Supreme Court dominated by party acolytes, which ruled, cynically, that the prohibition on a second consecutive term was a violation of the human rights of the President, and therefore that the constitution itself was unconstitutional. An economic elite that has largely accommodated to the President's brand of corporatism offered little resistance, either legal or, as in previous years, appeal to the international community, nor real support for a viable opposition candidate. As with Perez Molina in Guatemala, Ortega's controversial history was simply overlooked and, from there, his re-election was virtually assured.

Just over 10 years since the signing of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the health of democracy in Central America remains unclear. If, after all, the supreme court of a nation is able simply to disregard its own constitution, what does that say about the health of constitutional democracy? In most nations, supreme courts exist to interpret and defend national constitutions, not to find ways around them for political purposes.

It appears we have now entered a new era in Central America and elsewhere in Latin America, where the quest for security and economic expansion trumps democratic ideals: so long as people feel safer and wealthier, does it really matter who is in charge or what they have done to get there? The answer increasingly appears to be no.

This article first appeared in the Latin American Herald Tribune.