Hope for change prevailed in Guatemala’s 20 August presidential runoff, as the surprise winner of the first round – a political outsider leading a new party born out of anti-corruption protests – won by a landslide. After overcoming multiple judicial manoeuvres aimed at excluding him, president-elect Bernado Arévalo now faces the enormous task of dismantling the dense web of corruption and impunity that has disfigured Guatemalan democracy. A corrupt elite will keep putting obstacles in his way and may try to prevent Arévalo’s inauguration or overthrow him soon after. Guatemalan citizens will remain vigilant to ensure their will is respected. The international community needs to be their ally.

On 20 August, Guatemala witnessed a rare event: despite numerous attempts to stop it, the will of the majority prevailed. Democracy was at a dramatic crossroads, but Guatemalan voters got their say – and they said it clearly: the country needs a dramatic change of course, and it needs it now.

Bernardo Arévalo, the leader of the progressive Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement), born out of 2015 anti-corruption protests, is now Guatemala’s president-elect. All-night street celebrations erupted as soon as early results were announced. It was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence: politics bringing joy rather than disappointment to the citizens of Guatemala.

But renewed attempts to prevent change materialising can be expected. What Guatemalans expect from Arévalo is a morally competent government that will finally bring about real democracy – a government looking out for the public rather than self-serving elites. The unprecedented seriousness of Arévalo’s promise is reflected in the fear his rise has fuelled among the beneficiaries of the current authoritarian kleptocracy – what Guatemalans call ‘the corrupt pact’.

The blatant manipulation of judicial institutions on display after the first round of voting on 25 June failed to prevent Arévalo competing in the runoff – but now the attempt is to stop his inauguration. Following the runoff, the Public Prosecutor made yet another attempt to have Semilla suspended.

The stakes are so high that an attempt to stop change by force can’t be ruled out. Death threats poured in as the first-round results were announced, and an assassination plot involving state and non-state forces came to light days before the runoff.

For security reasons, Arévalo couldn’t address the crowds celebrating on election night in Guatemala City’s Obelisco Square. On 24 August, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures to Arévalo and vice-president-elect Karin Herrera, giving the state 15 days to report back on the adoption of additional measures – both already have state-issued security – to protect their physical integrity.

Guatemalans are already counting the days to the inauguration of their new government, scheduled for 14 January 2024. But their hope is mingled with uncertainty and fear.

An election surprise and its aftermath

The collective mood on 20 August couldn’t have been more different from that on 25 June, when first place in the first round went to invalid votes, ahead of the numerous candidates who appeared to offer no alternative to the status quo.

The run-up to the June vote had been marked by further deterioration of civic space, with people denouncing corruption, collusion, illegal private sector practices and human rights abuses subjected to smear campaigns, surveillance, harassment and criminalisation by state authorities – on top of the ever-present risk of physical violence typically coming from forces that are rarely identified and held to account.

The choice on offer was limited by the disqualification of several contenders, including Indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera and her running mate, former Human Rights Ombudsman Jordán Rodas Andrade, as well as the candidate who’d led in the polls, conservative business leader Carlos Pineda Sosa, who wasn’t regarded as a pliable member of the political establishment.

But no one saw Arévalo coming, because he hadn’t been on the radar of opinion polls. In a very fragmented vote, his 12 per cent put him in the runoff. The frontrunner, with 16 per cent, was a political insider, former first lady Sandra Torres of the Unión Nacional de la Esperanza (National Unity of Hope, UNE).

The establishment rightfully feared Arévalo because he didn’t seem the kind it could easily bring into the fold. A progressive academic and a member of Congress since 2020, he promised to bring back the numerous justice officials currently in exile and resume the fight against corruption ended by his predecessors.

The fact that he could become Guatemala’s next president made the 25 June election results an instant object of contention. Nine parties, including UNE, submitted complaints about supposed ‘irregularities’ that had gone undetected by all international observers, demanding a recount. Their supporters converged outside the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) calling for a rerun.

In what was denounced as an attempted ‘electoral coup’, the Constitutional Court ordered a recount and instructed the TSE to suspend official certification of results until complaints were resolved. Following the recount, the TSE eventually endorsed the results two weeks later, on 12 July.

But in the meantime, the Attorney General, an official under US sanctions for corruption, spearheaded an onslaught of judicial harassment against Arévalo and his running mate Herrera. She launched an investigation of Semilla for alleged irregularities in its registration process and had its offices raided. In the process of persecuting Semilla, she twice ordered raids on TSE offices as well. And just as the TSE announced Torres and Arévalo as the competitors in the runoff, she ordered Semilla’s suspension. The Constitutional Court however blocked this order and the runoff was eventually allowed to proceed unimpeded.

The European Union (EU) and the Organization of American States (OAS) took a strong stand. Days before the runoff, the OAS Electoral Observation Mission insisted they’d found no discrepancy between the official results and the voting patterns observed on the ground, highlighted that legal instruments were being abused by those dissatisfied with the results and warned that this ‘extreme judicialisation’ of the electoral process was putting democracy at risk. On the eve of the election, UNE criticised the EU Election Observation Mission as ‘intrusive’.

Domestic condemnation of the attempt to twist the results was also voiced by groups ranging from leading business associations to Indigenous authorities.

Citizens defend democracy

But the starring role was played by citizens who spent several weeks on the alert, aware that were they to lower their guard, Arévalo would be kicked out so the ruling party’s candidate, who’d placed third, could make it into the runoff instead.

Large-scale peaceful demonstrations were repeatedly held in Guatemala City and departmental capitals, overwhelmingly led by young people. They were vocally nonpartisan, making clear that they were marching not for Arévalo or Semilla, but for the right of people to make a choice, and therefore for the future of democracy in Guatemala.

An opinion poll published in early August showed a shift in public opinion: 76 per cent of respondents said they believed the country was on the wrong track, 73 per cent said they thought democracy was under threat and 56 per cent said they were willing to protest if the runoff was cancelled. Sixty-seven per cent disagreed with Semilla’s registration being cancelled and 77 per cent had a favourable opinion of Arévalo.

On election day, this translated into a clear victory for the candidate who embodied change: Arévalo took 58 per cent of the vote, compared to 37.2 per cent for Torres. Turnout was down, at 45 per cent compared to 60 per cent in the first round. But this was countered by a marked decrease in active rejection: blank votes fell from 7 to 1.3 per cent and null votes from 17.4 to 3.5 per cent, suggesting that many who’d previously expressed their anger by casting negative votes had now found someone they could place their hopes in.

The election saw strong participation by young, educated, urban voters, many voting for the first time, further benefiting Semilla. UNE typically fares better in rural areas as a result of the social welfare programmes that Torres promoted as first lady and promised to revive. Urban voters now represent over 60 per cent of the electoral roll and are more easily mobilised in an election focused purely on the presidency – while local bosses in rural areas, having already secured their personal strongholds, have less incentive to work to get out the vote for their presidential candidate.

An uncertain future

Once he takes office Arévalo will face a tough time fulfilling his promises, not least because the June election produced a highly fragmented Congress. There’ll be 16 parties represented, with Semilla on only 23 out of 160 seats. The current ruling party and UNE will be the two biggest legislative parties.

But that’s a battle for tomorrow. The questions now are whether the election results will be respected and Arévalo allowed to take office, and to what lengths deeply entrenched elites will go to try and stop him. Torres hasn’t yet conceded defeat. Instead, she’s cried foul and accused the five TSE magistrates of ‘breach of duties and abuse of authority’.

Guatemalans are already counting the days to the inauguration of their new government, scheduled for 14 January 2024. But their hope is mingled with uncertainty and fear.

Meanwhile the Attorney General and her right-hand man, a prosecutor who has made a career of protecting the powerful and persecuting the press, continue the ‘investigation’ through which they seek to shut Semilla down. People have responded by continuing to demonstrate outside the Attorney General’s office to demand her resignation.

Guatemala is living a unique moment, an opportunity that many didn’t think they’d ever see. But it’s also an uncertain time, in which the change almost within reach could still slip away. Guatemala must walk carefully into the future, one step at a time, resisting the onslaught, judicial or otherwise, to get the president-elect to Inauguration Day.

People have made clear they’re ready to take to the streets in numbers to defend what they’ve achieved. And they’ll need to both support and hold to account the new government for the mission it’s been entrusted with: that of bringing back the substance of democracy.


  • Guatemalan judicial and electoral authorities must uphold the election results and ensure a smooth transition.
  • Guatemalan civil society must keep up the pressure so that the process towards presidential inauguration proceeds as constitutionally mandated.
  • The international community, including the Organization of American States, the European Union and key foreign partners, must call for election results to be respected.

Cover photo by Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty Images