Credit: Silvia Rodríguez/AFP via Getty Images
By Inés M. Pousadela
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Jul 5 2023 (IPS)
When Guatemalans went to the polls on 25 June, distrust and disillusionment were rife. First place in the presidential contest was claimed by none of the candidates: it went to invalid votes, at 17 per cent. Many didn’t bother, resulting in an abstention rate over 40 per cent.
But an unexpected development brought some hope: Bernardo Arévalo, leader of the progressive Movimiento Semilla, made it to the runoff.
Arévalo’s promise to fight against systemic corruption and bring back the numerous justice operators – people such as judges, prosecutors and public defenders – currently in exile to help clean up institutions is causing great concern for those who profit from the current state of affairs. The fact that Arévalo could become Guatemala’s next president has made the election results an instant object of contention.
Corruption and democratic decline
Guatemalan electoral processes aren’t pristine, but that isn’t where the most serious problems lie. Civic freedoms are steadily deteriorating and state institutions have been weakened by predatory elites and coopted by organised crime. Transparency International finds evidence of strong influence by organised criminals over politics and politicians, with some criminals themselves in office.
No wonder Guatemalans have a low level of confidence in state institutions. In the latest Latinobarómetro report, the church was by far the most trusted institution, winning the trust of 71 per cent of people, followed at some distance by the armed forces and police. But only nine per cent of people trust political parties, and trust is also very low in Congress, electoral bodies and the judiciary.
At 25 per cent, satisfaction with the performance of democracy is extremely low – as is the number of people who think the country is ruled for the benefit of all rather than just elites.
The run-up to the vote
Those denouncing corruption, collusion, illegal private sector practices and human rights abuses have increasingly been subjected to smear campaigns, surveillance, harassment and criminalisation by state authorities. Many have been pushed into exile. Rising violence against journalists and human rights defenders, including killings – the latest being that of journalist Orlando Villanueva – recently led the CIVICUS Monitor to downgrade its civic space rating for Guatemala to the second-worst category, repressed.
Restrictions on civic freedoms increased in the run-up to elections, ranging from smear campaigns to criminalisation. On 14 June, José Rubén Zamora, head of the newspaper elPeriódico, which had exposed more than 200 corruption cases, was sentenced to six years in prison for alleged money laundering. Zamora had been subjected to harassment and intimidation for years and had survived an assassination attempt.
An observation mission carried out by Reporters Without Borders and others ahead of voting warned that the absence of basic press freedoms made it impossible to guarantee a legitimate electoral process.
The process was indeed marred by multiple irregularities, starting with the disqualification of several contenders, including Indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera and her running mate, Jordán Rodas Andrade, the only left-wing candidacy polls showed stood a fighting chance. The candidate who led opinion polls, conservative business leader and TikTok star Carlos Pineda, was also disqualified.
What happened on 25 June
With two dozen candidates competing in the presidential race, it was no surprise that none reached the 50 per cent threshold required to avoid a runoff. What was unexpected was Arévalo’s good performance.
The front-runner, Sandra Torres of National Unity of Hope, is a political insider, Guatemala’s first lady between 2008 and 2011. Now standing for the third time in a row, she received 16 per cent of the vote. If elected, she would become Guatemala’s first female president. But she’s by no means a champion of women’s rights: she’s a vocal anti-abortion activist and her running mate is an evangelical pastor.
Runner-up Arévalo is an unusual politician at the head of an unusual party. Originally an academic with social-democratic views, he’s currently a member of Congress, where he leads a five-member progressive caucus. His running mate, low-key feminist Karin Herrera, is a microbiology researcher and university professor.
Unlike many Guatemalan parties, Arévalo’s party wasn’t created as a vehicle for someone’s presidential ambitions or corrupt interests: it was the creature of a group of concerned people that grew out of mass anti-corruption protests that broke out in 2015. In 2019, its presidential candidate was disqualified. But it found its footing among middle class groups, young people and women, particularly in Guatemala City.
Opinion polls had placed Arévalo eighth or ninth among the many contenders, so his performance caught elites off guard.
There’s no guarantee he’ll win the run-off. He’d have to gain the votes of the many who abstained or cast blank and invalid votes. But the fact that Arévalo might win has galvanised those who currently profit from the corrupt status quo, and they’re trying to push him out of the race. A majority of pro-establishment parties, including Torres’s party, have submitted complaints demanding a recount. Their supporters converged outside the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), quickly pushing further and calling for a rerun.
While various incidents were recorded on election day – including instances of vote buying, mostly by parties linked to the ruling alliance – international and domestic observers alike concluded that the results were valid and the gap of more than 200,000 votes between Semilla and the next contender, the outgoing president’s party, was insurmountable.
Mirador Electoral, a civil society platform, denounced pressures on the TSE as an attempted ‘electoral coup’. The European Union’s observer mission and the Organization of American States have called for the will of voters to be respected. Arévalo condemned it all as an intimidatory manoeuvre and called for the TSE, the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court to act quickly and responsibly.
Instead, the Constitutional Court ordered the TSE to suspend official certification of results until complaints are resolved. Some fear an attempt to annul the elections will come next.
Guatemala stands at a crossroads. On the eve of voting it seemed on the verge of autocracy. An unexpected result hinted at the possibility of a much brighter path – one that fills many with hope but scares those who see their wealth and power endangered. The coming days and weeks will witness an arm-wrestling match between the past and the future, with three potential outcomes.
In the worst-case scenario, the runoff continues to be delayed by legal appeals and the task of appointing a president ultimately falls to Congress. In the second-worst scenario, a vote-by-vote recount is conducted instead of a simple cross-check of tally sheets, fraud occurs along the way and the ruling party’s candidate takes Arévalo’s runoff spot. Either way, the past wins.
Only if the recount is properly conducted, the results are corroborated and the runoff is held on 20 August will the future have a fighting chance. The corrupt establishment may still beat Arévalo – but this decision belongs to no one but the citizens of Guatemala.
Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.