Guatemalans to Vote on Constitution Reform

Despite its democratic aims, critics say the referendum is the result of a back-room deal with corrupt legislators

ON Sunday, Guatemalans will - for the first time in their nation's history - get a chance to vote on constitutional reforms aimed at fortifying their democratic political system.

On the face of it, a referendum working to make a country more democratic should be a shoo-in. But, ironically, a cross section of opposition groups on the left and right are urging people to vote ``no'' or to abstain from voting.

President Ramiro de Leon Carpio is beseiged by accusations that the referendum is a shady deal cut with corrupt legislators. And he is warning that Guatemala's political stability depends on the referendum passing.

The reform package was developed in response to public demand for more accountability and less corruption in government. Among the 43 constitutional reforms proposed are those to:

* Eliminate the confidential presidential slush fund.

* Shorten the terms of president and congress to four years, with new congressional elections this fall.

* Prohibit the transfer of public investment funds into the government's operating budget (a practice to cover shortfalls).

* Publish the budget annually and a report on actual expenditures a year later.

* Shift the power to appoint the comptroller general and attorney general from the president to the Congress.

* Prohibit the government from borrowing from the central bank to cover the deficit.

* Increase the funding to municipalities from 8 to 10 percent of the total government budget.

``On the whole, these are positive democratic steps,'' says Armando De La Torre, a political scientist at Francisco Marroquin University in Guatemala City. ``The opposition arises less from the content than the way the package was put together.''

When President De Leon took office after an aborted coup in May 1993, there was a public clamor to oust corrupt Guatemalan congressmen and judicial officials. He called for their resignations last August. Most refused to step down. De Leon then tried to push them out via a plebiscite. But the Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional. In November, De Leon was forced to sit down with the Congress and hammer out a deal.

A back-room deal?

``It's a back-room deal cut between the Congress, the president, the military, and big business,'' says Dick Fletcher, spokesman for Union Sindicato Asociacion Popular (UASP), one of the trade unions opposing the referendum. ``There was no input from the civil sector. That's not democracy.''

The UASP and the center-right National Advancement Party are among those advising voters to stay at home or cast an invalid vote to protest the referendum. Other trade unions and civic groups are also counseling people to ``vote no.''

Leftist Guatemalan guerrillas issued a statement in Mexico City calling the referendum ``a joke'' and urging voters to boycott it. But they did not claim responsibility for the recent series of bombings around the capital that observers see as aimed at terrorizing voters.

Meanwhile, the government, backed by major businesses, has mounted a publicity campaign to attract a ``yes'' vote. Failure of the referendum would lead to an ``unpredictable political crisis'' De Leon said on Jan. 19. He said he may be forced to take ``historical action'' to root out corruption if the referendum isn't passed.

Low voter turnout expected

Polls show support for the referendum at about 60 percent. But the abstention rate among Guatemala's 3.4 million voters is expected to be high. One-third of the electorate is illiterate. Many people haven't taken the time to study the referendum, according to local press reports. Government unions are calling for a one-day general strike on Jan. 28 to protest the referendum.

``Those opposing the referendum hope to use the high abstention rate in combination with the `no' vote to say that the reforms are illegitimate and don't reflect the will of the people,'' Mr. De La Torre says.

While some opposing the referendum applaud the political reforms, they don't agree with the proposed prohibition on central bank lending, which is designed to stop deficit spending and reduce inflation. But if the government can no longer print money to cover the deficit, economists say, it must either raise taxes, borrow from the private sector, or sell state enterprises.

The last option - privatization - is opposed by the trade unions. ``The bank reform will force the government to sell off the telephone company, the railroads, and the utilities to pay debt. It's part of the back-room deal which favors big business,'' Fletcher says.

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