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GUATEMALA: The Party System from 1963 to 2000, by Daniel M. Corstange*

The original edition of Political Parties declared that the Guatemalan political system had been subject to drastic changes throughout the original time period, and very little has changed since. Perpetual instability, near-chronic military intervention in the political arena, and the remarkable volatility of the party system have all contributed to blunt declarations that Guatemala is "a country whose political system has failed miserably to keep pace with the dynamics of modern social and economic change" (Alexander, 1982: 419). After the original 1950-1962 period studied by the ICPP, two broad periods--each preceded by a three-year interlude of direct military rule--can be traced: military-civilian collaboration from 1966-1982, and the strengthening of civilian control from 1985-present.

Military-Civilian Collaboration: 1966-1982

The presidency was held by General Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes and his National Democratic Reconciliation Party (PRDN) until March of 1963, when he was overthrown by his defense minister. The coup occurred prior to the scheduled presidential elections in order to prevent the return of former left-of-center president Juan José Arévalo. The new head of state, Colonel Enrique Peralta Azurdía, rewrote the constitution, which stipulated severe restrictions on political parties, including the requirement that all new ones submit membership lists in excess of 50,000 people. The government therefore had effective control over which parties could contest elections. This power was used in subsequent electoral cycles to suppress left-of-center reformist parties (Reding, 1997).

These checks were used in the 1966 election season to restrict the number of participating parties to three: the extreme rightist National Liberation Movement (MLN), the president's own center-right Institutional Democratic Party (PID), and the centrist Revolutionary Party (PR). The PR and its presidential candidate, Julio César Méndez Montenegro, took power after winning a plurality of the presidential vote and a majority of the seats in the Congress, affecting the transition to ostensible civilian rule. Montenegro and the PR exercised little effective control, however; real power remained in the hands of the armed forces. After four years of poorly implemented reforms and increasing political violence, the electoral results of the 1970 election mirrored popular discontent by bringing to power Carlos Araña Osorio at the head of a coalition of rightist, anticommunist parties. From this point until the 1982 coup, "voting became a narrow choice between conservative parties allied with the military" (Black, 1987: 433). Elections were regularly marred by fraud and abstention, while the presidency was rotated among officers selected by the military high command and endorsed by the rightist parties. All candidates had to be sanctioned by the armed forces: preliminary electoral returns in both the 1974 and 1978 elections showed apparent defeats for the promilitary candidates. After the military took control of the ballot counting, their candidates were declared the winners after "dramatic" gains (Alexander, 1982: 420).

Strengthening of Civilian Control: 1985-Present

After successive elections marred by fraud, the 1982 election became a turning point in Guatemalan political life. The president, General Fernando Romeo Lucas García, attempted to pass power on to his own defense minister, General Anibal Guevara. Guevara won a particularly fraudulent election in March of 1982, but never took office. On March 23, General Efraín Ríos Montt and a group of disaffected army officers seized power in a bloodless coup. Ríos Montt, who as head of a centrist coalition had been defrauded of the presidency in 1974, began a comprehensive revision of the political system. The reforms were briefly interrupted when General Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores replaced Ríos Montt in a violent palace coup in 1983, but nonetheless were continued. In 1984, the military government announced elections for an 88-member Constituent Assembly, charged with drafting a new constitution and electoral law. The constitution was formally introduced in June of 1985, though the government bypassed the Assembly's authority and introduced an electoral law of its own. Elections were held in November of that year, ushering in the new era of civilian control of the government, with the Christian Democrats taking both the presidency and an absolute majority in the Congress.

Though elections did result in a civilian-controlled government, doubts about its institutionalization arose after the subsequent election of Jorge Serrano Elías, a political crony of Ríos Montt and the leader of the Solidarity Action Movement (MAS), to the presidency in 1990. Though originally attempting to govern through constitutional means, Serrano came into increasing conflict with the Congress, where his party controlled just 16 percent of the seats. In May of 1993, he attempted to take dictatorial powers by dissolving the Congress and the courts. When Serrano lost the support of the military after a few days, he resigned. The Congress chose Ramiro de León Carpio to succeed him. By-elections were then held in 1994 for the Congress, after provisional changes that reduced the size of that body from 116 seats to 80.

New elections for the presidency and the Congress were held as scheduled in November of 1995. The National Advancement Party (PAN), after a weak showing in its first elections in 1990, achieved a stunning turn-around, capturing both the presidency and an absolute majority in Congress. Continuing the trend of increased civilian control over the military, the new president, Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen, took serious steps to reign in the security apparatus, including the dismissal of more than half the country's generals and over 100 police officers linked to criminal acts (Reding, 1997). Arzú became the first Guatemalan president to meet with guerrilla leaders, and at the end of 1996 signed a final peace treaty, ending the country's 35-year civil war.

The government took a sharp turn to the right in the November 1999 elections, however. The party of Ríos Montt, the Guatemalan Republican Front, swept both the presidential and legislative elections. Though Ríos Montt was barred from seeking the presidency due to his involvement in the 1982 coup, his associate Alfonso Antonio Portillo Cabrera took the presidency, while Ríos Montt˜as an elected deputy˜himself took control of the Congress. As of this writing, it is too early to tell how this development will affect Guatemalan political life.

Continuity and Change

Guatemala's party system has experienced significant turbulence over the last 20 years, continuing the trend that began during the original 1950-1962 period and in the 1963-1978 overview. Since then, many parties have terminated, and many have come into existence. Alexander notes:

As in other Latin-American countries, most parties tend to reflect the personal ideology of one individual rather than a movement based on collective interests transcending its leader. Since very little effort goes toward the formulation of a broad political philosophy, many organizations collapse as soon as their founder exits from the political stage (Alexander, 1982: 420).

This trend can be seen in the births and deaths of various parties that were clearly designed as vehicles for the political ambitions of their leaders.

Continuity and Change in Political Parties, 1963-2000

Original Parties from 1950-62, still continuing to 2000

442 Christian Democrats of Guatemala (Democracia Cristiana Guatemalteca--DCG) The DCG was organized in the late 1950s, but not legally registered until 1968. It contested the 1982 elections as part of the National Opposition Union (UNO) with the National Renewal Party (PNR), which captured a token percentage of seats. The party performed well in the first set of elections after the 1982 coup, winning an absolute majority of seats in the Congress, as well as attaining the presidency. Since then, its electoral strength has declined precipitously. In 1995, it joined in a party list with the Democratic Socialist Party (PSD) and the National Center Union (UCN) which captured 10 percent of the seats, distributed among the three parties. The DCG's share, four percent, fell to as low as two percent of the seats in the 1999 elections.

443 Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario--PR) The PR was founded in 1957 by Mario Méndez Montenegro, who was elected president on its ticket in 1966. The party could not replicate its success in the 1966 legislative elections, though it continued to be a force in the Congress until the 1982 coup. It re-emerged to capture one seat in 1990, but lost it in the subsequent election.

447 Guatemalan Labor Party (Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo--PGT) A major force in the Arbenz regime, the Labor/Communist Party continued to operate clandestinely after the 1954 coup. With its tiny membership, it won a mere one percent of the seats in the 1985 elections, though did not hang on to this gain. Though not mentioned in recent literature, it is likely that the PGT continues to exist with a core, fringe membership.

449 Institutional Democratic Party (Partido Institucional Democrático--PID) Successor to Ydígoras's National Democratic Reconcilation Party (PRDN), the PID was founded in 1965 by conservative businessmen under the sponsorship of the military government of Colonel Enrique Peralta. It enjoyed considerable electoral success throughout the 1970s, but seemingly evaporated from political life after the 1982 coup. It revived its old alliance with the National Liberation Movement (MLN) to contest the 1985 elections, winning 12 percent of the seats between the two parties. In the 1990 elections, it combined under the No Sell-Out Platform (PNV) of Ríos Montt with the National Unity Front (FUN) and the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), which won 10 percent of the seats. The party has since not placed deputies in the subsequent two general elections. Though perhaps electorally maimed or dormant, one source claims that the PID continues to exist as an "extra-parliamentary party" (<>).

4410 National Liberation Movement (Movimiento de Liberación Nacional--MLN) The MLN is a direct descendent of the MDN. Officially registered in 1960, it experienced considerable electoral success throughout the 1960s and 1970s under the patronage of the military. The 1982 coup brought an abrupt end to this ascendency. The MLN joined in an alliance with the Institutional Democratic Party (PID) to contest the 1985 elections, and then with the National Advancement Front (FAN) in 1990. Alone, the party won a mere one percent of the seats in the 1995 elections, which it failed to consolidate in 1999.

New parties forming after 1962 and continuing to 2000

4411 National Advancement Party (Partido de Avanzade Nacional--PAN) The PAN was founded by Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen in 1989 to contest the 1990 elections, in which the party took 10 percent of the seats. By the next general elections in 1995, the PAN won both the presidency and an absolute majority in the Congress. The party's legislative clout dropped somewhat in the 1999 elections, dropping it from just over half the seats to a third.

4412 Guatemalan Republican Front (Frente Republicano Guatemalteco--FRG) Founded in 1988, the FRG is the vehicle of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. In 1990, it combined with the Institutional Democratic Party (PID) and the National Unity Front (FUN) under the No Sell-Out Platform (PNV), which took 10 percent of the seats. After capturing 40 percent of the seats in the 1994 by-election, the FRG took slightly over one-quarter of the seats in 1995. In the 1999 elections, the party won an absolute majority in Congress, as well as the presidency, though Ríos Montt himself is barred from holding that office by virtue of his role in the 1982 coup.

4413 Progressive Liberator Party (Partido Libertador Progresista--PLP) The PLP was founded in 1990. It first placed a deputy in the 1999 elections, obtaining one percent of the seats.

4414 New Democratic Front of Guatemala (Frente Democrático Nueva Guatemala--FDNG) In its first contested election in 1995, the FDNG took eight percent of the seats, though it did not place any deputies in the subsequent election.

4415 Union of the National Center (Union del Centro Nacional--UCN) The UCN was founded in 1984, modeling itself as a neo-conservative party in a scene long dominated by the far right. After winning 22 percent of the seats in the 1985 elections, the party's legislative clout rose to 35 percent of the seats in the 1990 elections. Its support dropped dramatically, however; it contested the 1995 elections on a joint ticket with the Democratic Socialist Party (PSD) and the Christian Democrats (DCG). The coalition took 10 percent of the seats, but the UCN's share was a mere three percent. It failed to place any deputies in the 1999 elections.

4416 Democratic Union (Union Democrática--UD) Founded in 1983, the DU is a small party. It first gained representation in the 1994 by-election, getting one percent of the seats. It duplicated this performance in the 1995 general election. In a coalition with the Green Organization (La Organización Verde), it won one percent of the seats in the 1999 election.

4417 Solidarity Action Movement (Movimiento de Acción Solidaria--MAS) The MAS was founded in 1986 by Jorge Serrano Elias after he had stood as the presidential candidate for the Revolutionary Party-Democratic Party of National Conciliation coalition (PR-PDCN) in 1985. The MAS took 16 percent of the seats in the 1990 election, and Serrano was elected president in the second round after being supported by both the No Sell-Out Platform (PNV) and the National Advancement Party (PAN). After Serrano's attempted coup in 1993, the party was discredited, and it remains to be seen if the party can rebound.

4418 Democratic Socialist Party (Partido Social Democrático--PSD) Founded in 1978, most of the PSD's membership was driven underground in 1979 after the killing of its secretary general, and has since experienced serious factional splits. One wing contested the 1985 presidential elections, but another refused to take part. The party took an two percent of the seats in the 1985, dropped to one percent in 1990 in an alliance with Popular Alliance 5 (PA-5), rebounded to three percent in 1995, and lost them in 1999.

4420 Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Gautemalteca--URNG) Formed in 1979, the URNG was an umbrella organization for a variety of guerrilla groups. After the 1996 peace treaty, the URNG reformed itself as a legalist political party called the New National Alliance (Alianza Nueva Nacional--ANN). In its first contested election, ANN won eight percent of the seats.

New parties forming after 1962 but terminating before 2000

448 Authentic Nationalist Center (Central Autentica Nacionalista--CAN) The CAN was founded in 1979 by General Carlos Araña Osorio after his falling out with the National Liberation Movement (MLN), and was originally known as the Organized Arañista Central (CAO). The party last won seats in the 1982 elections. After the coup, the CAN suffered an internal split between Araña loyalists and followers of the CAN's presidential candidate. The party contested the 1985 legislative elections, winning six percent of the popular vote but no seats. Since that time, the CAN has failed to place any representatives in the Congress. Considering this fact and its origins as a personal vehicle for Araña, the party has most likely terminated, though no source explicitly declares this.

4419 National Renovation Party (Partido Nacional Renovador--PNR) The PNR was founded in 1978 by Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre--a former cabinet member of the National Liberation Movement (MLN)--as a personal vehicle for his own political ambitions. Maldonado lost the 1982 presidential election, and his party did not place any deputies in the Congress. It captured a mere one percent of the seats in the 1985, which it lost in the next elections. The party is assumed to have terminated: its origin as a vehicle for one man's presidential bid casts doubts on the ideological staying power of the party.


"3rd Roundup: Opposition wins in Guatemala--run-off likely." Deutsche Presse-Agentur. Nov. 8, 1999.

Alexander, Robert J. (ed.) 1982. Political Parties of the Americas, vol. II. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press).

Central Intelligence Agency, 1992. World Factbook (Washington: US Government Printing Office).

Central Intelligence Agency, 1995. World Factbook (Washington: US Government Printing Office).

Coggins, John and D.S. Lewis (eds.) 1992. Political Parties of the Americas and the Caribbean (Lanham, MD: Longman).

Day, Alan J. and Henry W. Degenhardt (eds.) 1984. Political Parties of the World (London: Longman).

Delury, George E. (ed.), 1987. World Encyclopedia of Political Systems & Parties, vol. I. (New York: Facts On File).

Goodman, Louis W. et. al. (eds.), 1992. Political Parties and Democracy in Central America (Boulder: Westview Press).

"The Guatemalan election results." BBC Summary of World Broadcasts. Mar. 12, 1982.

"Article 31605," 1982. Keesing's Contemporary Archives: Records of World Events (London: Longman).




Electoral Data

1999 Legislative Elections: Nov. 7



"3rd Roundup: Opposition wins in Guatemala-- run-off likely," Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Nov. 8, 1999.

1995 Legislative Elections: Nov. 12 <>

1994 Legislative By-Elections: Aug. 14

"Guatemala," CIA World Factbook, 1995.

1990 Legislative Elections: Nov. 16

"Guatemala," CIA World Factbook, 1992.

Political Parties of the Americas & the Caribbean, Coggins and Lewis

1985 Legislative Elections: Nov. 3 <>

1982 Legislative Elections: Mar. 7

"The Guatemalan election results," BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 3/12/82.

Keesing's Contemporary Archives: Records of World Events, London: Longman, 1982, 31605.

*Participant in Northwestern University's Summer Camp for Political Party Research, June-August, 2000