On Sunday, a record-breaking 7.3 million Guatemalans went to the polls to elect the country’s top officials. Months of controversy surrounding former candidate Sandra Torres led up to the September 11th election day. In the end, Torres was barred from running and retired general Otto Perez led the polls with 40 percent of the vote. Businessman Manuel Balidizon came in second place but neither candidate reached the 50 percent of the vote needed to take the presidency.
Perez and Balidizon will now face each other in a run-off in early November to decide who will be the next leader of Guatemala. Unlike in the United States, Guatemala has a multi-party political system and many candidates can run in the presidential election. If one candidate doesn’t receive a majority of the votes the top two candidates have a run-off election.
The final November election will undoubtedly receive much media attention given Perez’s role in the Guatemalan Civil War. However, many Guatemalans want to see a more hard-line security stance on the violence plaguing the country and believe that the former general’s “iron fist” approach can stem the violence.
Even in light of the controversy surrounding the candidates, the voter turn-out on September 11th was remarkable for several reasons. First of all, voter registration shot up significantly from the last presidential election in 2007. For the September 11th election, 22.5 percent more citizens registered to vote than previously.
Secondly, women also came out to vote in more numbers than ever before. According to the United Nations Development Programme, 50 percent of women voted compared to 47 percent of men with almost 190,000 more women than men registering to vote.
Finally, civic organizations and the government have been reaching out to groups that have historically been excluded from the political system. Many rural citizens are unable to vote because voting stations in rural areas are few and far between. The government made efforts to have more rural polling stations than before but it is still difficult for rural and indigenous voters to feel engaged in the political system.
Women and youth throughout the country have also had low turnout in the past, but this year the government and the United Nations Development Programme led a media campaign with many celebrities and role models to encourage young people to vote. The campaign was also spread in Spanish and mam, quiche, cakchiquel, and quekchi to reach indigenous voters in their own languages.
The organizations MADRE and Muixil also held voter education workshops in the region of El Quiche to specifically target indigenous women and inform them about the candidates and their policies.
Guatemalan youth are also reporting on the elections from their own unique perspective through VOZZ, a youth journalism training program. Created by young people in Guatemala City, the programs trains 16 to 24 year olds in reporting through a variety of media platforms, including print, audio, and online. VOZZ reports on rural and urban locations and in many languages to cross language and geographic boundaries.
The run-off is less than two months away and more Guatemalans than ever before are participating in their democratic process in new and innovative ways. Guatemala and the rest of the world are sure to see an interesting and historic race leading up to November election.