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The high stakes of Guatemala's presidential elections

Update: Preliminary results show that anti-corruption reformer Bernardo Arévalo has won handily with 58 percent of the vote.

Analysis | Latin America

UPDATE 8/21, 6 a.m. EST: Preliminary results show that anti-corruption reformer Bernardo Arévalo has won the Guatemalan presidential run-off handily with 58 percent of the vote (out of 98 percent of the ballots counted). His opponent, Sandra Torres, received 37 percent, according to early reports Monday.

Guatemalans head to the polls this Sunday to vote in the run-off election for the country’s next president. 

Bernardo Arévalo of the center-left Movimiento Semilla party, or Seed Movement, will compete against Sandra Torres, the establishment favorite and head of the conservative National Unity of Hope party (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza).

Six weeks ago, Arévalo defied all forecasts to secure second place in the general election and advanced to the run-off. His rise came as a surprise to many, as he had not been polling among the top three. His strong showing reflects an electorate fed up with the political status quo.

The son of the country’s first democratically elected leader, Arévalo campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and promises to bring change to the country. His party, Semilla, emerged from the massive countrywide protests in 2015 that ousted then-president Otto Peréz Molina and vice president Roxana Baldetti for their involvement in serious corruption. It is one of the few political parties that has maintained a strong track record in support of strengthening democracy and the rule of law.

His contender, Sandra Torres, is considered a political insider, having drifted to the right through her two previous presidential bids. As first lady during the administration of former President Alvaro Colom (2008-2011), she helped implement several popular social programs, which earned her strong support among rural communities. Her party is one of the largest and best-organized political machines despite being the target of several corruption investigations, including one that resulted in Torres’ arrest in 2019 for illicit campaign financing.

In the current campaign, she has appealed to conservative social values and sought the endorsement of sectors who once battled against her.

The stakes on Sunday could not be higher for Guatemala’s teetering democracy. In recent years, the country has seen a dramatic erosion of the rule of law and a sharp slide toward authoritarianism. The administration of President Alejandro Giammettei has presided over a crackdown against critics and perceived enemies. The electoral process itself has been highly contentious and fraught with uncertainty as the corrupt establishment has used its muscle to maintain its grip on power.

Arevalo’s shot at the presidency has sparked a glimmer of hope. The most recent poll put Arévalo’s support at 61 percent. His emergence as a viable option has energized a citizenry who appears determined not to let their democracy wither without a fight. In the 1940s, his father, Juan José Arévalo, ushered in Guatemala’s first Democratic Spring — ten years of democratic and economic reforms cut short in 1954 by a U.S.-backed coup

Now, almost 70 years later, Guatemala may well be facing a new democratic spring.

Electoral Interference

To the forces of the political establishment, Arévalo poses a serious threat. Ever since the first round on June 25, the government has used corrupt legal and electoral systems to try to disqualify him and his party. 

Rival political parties, including Torres’ UNE, moved quickly to suspend the first round by claiming fraud. But electoral observation missions from the Organization of American States and European Union found no evidence of major irregularities. When the elite’s legal attempts failed, they tried to suspend Arevalo’s party.

In mid-July, the country’s top anti-corruption prosecutor, Rafael Curruchiche, persuaded a lower court to suspend Semilla for alleged money laundering and technical irregularities. The Constitutional Court ultimately overturned the ruling after finding that the suspension violated the electoral law.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office didn’t give up, however, and subsequently raided Semilla’s offices, as well as those of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. It sought criminal charges against the head of the National Citizen Registry, and most recently, sought the names of vote counters, reopening their unfounded claims of fraud. Two days before the run-off, the Public Prosecutor’s Office reported that it is advancing the case, posing a renewed question mark over the fate of Sunday’s election. 

If victorious, Arévalo could still face an uphill battle as these same forces may continue to try to disqualify him or his party during the months prior to taking office in January. In any event, his ability to govern effectively is likely to be constrained by the opposition’s majority in the Congress.

What’s at Stake?

The results of the upcoming elections have far-reaching implications. Since the end of decades of brutal military rule in 1986, Guatemala has been struggling to consolidate its democracy. Powerful groups — including former military, economic and political elites and organized crime figures — have dominated the political landscape and built a system that has enabled those in power to use the state to shield and facilitate their illicit activities. This arrangement perpetuated weak and permeable institutions that have proved unable to provide Guatemalans access to basic public services and justice. 

By 2006, however, these alliances had grown so powerful that the government, under pressure from civil society and its main sources of external assistance — the international financial institutions, the U.S., Canada, and the European Union — invited UN assistance.

For a number of years, Guatemala made important gains in strengthening the rule of law with the support of the UN-led International Commission against Impunity, or CICIG. The Commission helped strengthen the authority of prosecutors and judges to investigate and prosecute corrupt actors, including former presidents, judges, legislators, government ministers, army officers, and police officials.

CICIG conducted its work through four presidencies, but its probes into illicit campaign financing produced a fierce backlash by the elites who successfully pressed the government not to renew the Commission’s mandate in 2019. While CICIG had enjoyed strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress and from former presidents Bush and Obama, the administration of President Donald Trump took a more hands-off position.

Since CICIG’s expiration, the country’s corrupt alliances have unleashed an aggressive strategy to regain control of government institutions, the courts, and Public Prosecutor’s Office. Coopting the judicial system, they have reversed high-level investigations, halted probes into their own corruption, and silenced those who had sought to hold them accountable. Under President Giammattei, the courts and prosecutor’s office have been weaponized to go after independent judges, prosecutors, and investigators involved in anti-corruption and human rights cases. To date, dozens of justice officials have been forced into exile, while others have been imprisoned. While the Biden administration has sanctioned the Attorney General and other senior justice officials for these actions, they have continued unabated.

Independent journalists, and human rights and land defenders have also been the target of defamation lawsuits, harassment, and spurious criminal cases aimed at silencing their voices. Earlier this year, a Guatemalan court sentenced José Ruben Zamora, a prominent independent journalist known for exposing corruption, to six years in prison on money-laundering charges. His lawyers and others who have cooperated with the newspaper have been targeted. At least 20 journalists have left the country.

The separation of powers and basic human rights protections guaranteed in the constitution have been eroded as Guatemala has moved quickly towards an authoritarian system of governance.

Regional Implications

Guatemala has the largest population and economy in Central America, and the U.S. is its most important economic partner outside the isthmus. It continues to be an important source of and transit point for irregular migration and a pathway for criminal groups and illicit goods. The weakened state of the rule of law and widespread corruption exacerbate factors, notably poverty and climate change, that force growing numbers to migrate in search of safety and better opportunities.

While the Biden administration has at times been hesitant to act decisively in response to Guatemala’s democratic backsliding, it has played an important role during the election period by speaking in support of the legitimacy of the first-round results and condemning electoral interference. It has joined other countries in the OAS Permanent Council in calling for the integrity of the elections and supported an extended OAS presence through the transition in power set for January 14. 

Sunday’s results will have critical implications for a region where democracies have increasingly come under threat.

Guatemala presidential candidates Sandra Torres (Carlos Sebastian/Creative Commons) and Bernardo Arévalo (Javier Arango/Creative Commons)
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