GUATEMALAN POLITICS AND GOVERNMENTAL ORGANIZATION
With the Guatemalan General Elections coming up in September, Qué Pasa presents this handy-dandy basic primer to Guatemalan politics and governmental organization.
Guatemala is a constitutional democratic republic that is divided into 22 Departments, administered by governors appointed by the President. Guatemala City and 332 other municipalities are governed by popularly elected mayors or councils. The country is governed by a 3-branch system, consisting of the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches.
The Executive Branch
The President serves as both the chief of state and the head of government. Both the President and Vice President are directly elected on a joint ticket through popular vote and are limited to one term. (A Vice President can run for president after having been out of office for at least four years.) The President, who has broad powers, appoints and is assisted by a cabinet. The cabinet members traditionally resign at the end of each year so that the President can rename them or choose a new cabinet. The President, who is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, appoints most military officers, cabinet members, the 22 departmental governors, and other important public and diplomatic officials. Presidential duties include preserving public order, proposing laws, and making an annual presentation of the budget.
Who can run for President?
According to the Guatemalan Constitution, any natural-born Guatemala citizen 40 years of age or older can run for president, providing he or she is nominated by a recognized political party, is not a family member of the current President, is not a currently-serving Vice President, is not a practicing minister of any religion, and has never participated in coup d’état activities. Previous presidents are also barred from another term, whether consecutive or not. Native-born citizens of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica are considered to be Guatemalans under the Constitution, and are allowed to run for president.
The Legislative Branch
The Congress of the Republic has one chamber with 158 members called Deputies (Diputados), elected for a four-year term, 80% in departmental constituencies and 20% by nationwide proportional representation. Under the Constitution, the Congress imposes taxes, enacts the national budget, declares war and makes peace, and ratifies treaties and conventions proposed by the President. The Congress elects the president of the judiciary and judges of the Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals. The President may veto congressional bills, but the Congress may override by a two-thirds vote.
The Judicial Branch
The Judicial Branch is headed by the Supreme Court of Justice. There is also a five-member Court of Constitutionality, which only interprets the law in matters that affect the country’s constitution. Its members are appointed, one each by the Supreme Court of Justice, Congress, the President, the independent University of San Carlos, and the bar association.
Who can vote?
All citizens 18 or older, who are not serving on active duty with the armed forces or police (both of which are restricted to their barracks on election day) are obliged to register to vote and to participate in elections. Voting is optional, however, for nonliterate citizens. Compulsory voting is not enforced and there are no sanctions in Guatemala for not voting.
Political parties in Guatemala are generally numerous and unstable. No party has won the presidency more than once, and in every election period the majority of the parties are small and newly-formed. Even the longer-lived parties tend to last a decade or less as significant forces in Guatemalan politics. It is not uncommon for Congress Members to change parties during the legislative term, or for Congress Members to secede from a party to create a new party or congressional block.
What’s up with that?
You may have noticed the campaign propaganda with the various parties’ logos marked out with a big X. This is not vandalism; on Guatemalan ballots, the voters mark their choices with an X across the parties’ logos. The X’ed out logos on the campaign materials is simply a way of showing how the voters should mark their ballots. Some of the campaign ads, in recent years, have also begun to use phrases like “Así se vota” (“Vote like this”).
If you look closely on Election Day (this year on September 11th), you’ll be able to spot those Guatemalans who have already voted. They’ll be the ones who have a finger dyed purple. Why is this? It’s because once a voter has cast his or her ballot, they are required to dip a finger into indelible purple ink which lasts up to 72 hours, to ensure that no one is able to vote more than once.