Guatemala clings to democratic promise
Guatemala held elections on 25 June in a context of great public scepticism, with the state coopted by a corrupt self-interested elite. But the unexpected happened: Bernardo Arévalo, a presidential candidate alien to the political class, at the head of a new party born out of anti-corruption protests, made the runoff vote. An attempt to overturn the results was orchestrated in response, with the Constitutional Court suspending certification and ordering a recount. The future of democracy hangs in the balance: it depends on whether a free and fair competition is held between the candidates who’ve already earned their place in the runoff, giving voters the final say.
When Guatemalans went to the polls on 25 June, distrust and disillusionment were rife. There was a plethora of options but seemingly no genuine alternative, with no glimpse of a way out of the country’s downward spiral of authoritarianism and corruption. Unsurprisingly, first place in the presidential contest was claimed by none of the candidates but instead went to invalid votes, at 17 per cent. Many people didn’t even 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 (Seed Movement), made it to the runoff. He’d never been on the radar of opinion polls. In the context of an extremely fragmented multi-party system, the 12 per cent he got put him in the next round, scheduled for 20 August.
Arévalo’s promise to take up the anti-corruption fight and bring back to the country 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 he could become Guatemala’s next president has made the election results an instant object of contention, with several political parties filing legal actions to try to force a recount and ultimately a rerun.
Corruption and democratic decline
Changes at the top are nothing new in Guatemala. Since leaving military rule behind in 1986, the country has had 12 civilian presidents belonging to nine different parties or coalitions, plus two independent leaders. But what is new is a real alternative emerging.
Long classified as a ‘hybrid regime‘ – with a mix of democratic and authoritarian traits – Guatemala has drifted closer to authoritarianism. Electoral processes aren’t pristine, but that isn’t where the most serious problems lie. With civic freedoms steadily deteriorating, some of the most significant setbacks have been in the functioning of state institutions, weakened by predatory elites and coopted by organised crime. Transparency International’s 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index found evidence of strong influence by organised criminals over politics and politicians, with some criminals themselves seeking and securing office.
No wonder Guatemalans have a low level of confidence in state institutions, and particularly democratic institutions. In the latest Latinobarómetro report, issued in 2021, the church emerged as by far the most trusted institution, winning the trust of 71 per cent of people, followed at some distance by the armed forces, where trust stands at 34 per cent, and the police, at 28 per cent. Compare this to the low levels of trust in political parties, at only nine per cent, electoral institutions, on 17 per cent, Congress, with 18 per cent, and the judiciary, at 20 per cent.
According to the same survey, satisfaction with the performance of democracy stands at 25 per cent. Corruption and its economic impacts are widely acknowledged: barely 20 per cent of Guatemalans think the distribution of wealth is fair and only a similar percentage believe the country is ruled for the benefit of all people rather than just elites. An overwhelming majority think access to education, health and justice are extremely unequal and unfair. This impacts on support for democracy, at one of the lowest levels in Latin America: only 37 per cent believe democracy is preferable to any other form of government.
Have anti-corruption efforts failed in Guatemala?
In 2006, following lengthy civil society advocacy, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was established through an agreement between the United Nations and the state of Guatemala. It was charged with supporting the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the police and other state institutions to investigate and prosecute serious crimes. Its ultimate goal was to strengthen national judicial institutions so they could be able to confront illegal groups and organised crime.
Its mandate encompassed three broad objectives. First, it was tasked with investigating the existence of illegal security forces and clandestine security apparatuses committing crimes that affected fundamental human rights and identifying the structure of illegal groups, their links with state officials, their activities, modes of operation and sources of funding. Second, it was to collaborate with state institutions to dismantle clandestine security apparatuses and illegal security bodies and promote the investigation, prosecution and punishment of crimes committed by their members. And third, it was charged with making recommendations for the adoption of public policies aimed at eradicating clandestine security apparatuses and illegal security groups and preventing their reappearance.
CICIG’s initial two-year mandate was renewed several times. Over 12 years, it assisted in filing more than 120 cases in the Guatemalan justice system, implicating more than 1,540 people, with around 660 facing charges – among them 200 government officials including former presidents, members of congress, ministers and judges. Its joint investigations with the Attorney General’s Office also led to more than 400 convictions. It introduced new methods for investigating criminal networks, promoted legal reforms that granted prosecutors authority to use phone records, lawful surveillance and plea deals in criminal investigations, and played a role in the creation of a special investigations unit, a criminal analysis unit, a witness protection programme and special courts where judges were better protected from organised crime.
CICIG’s 2015 report on the state of political financing found that campaign spending was excessive and disproportionate, that the way parties and candidates raised and spent resources opened the door to illicit financing and that controls, regulations and sanctions were weak and inadequate. It concluded that ‘political financing mechanisms have shaped the party system, incentivised corruption, and undermined Guatemalan democracy’.
And then in 2018 President Jimmy Morales announced he wouldn’t renew the CICIG’s mandate. At the time it was investigating him and several of his family members. He’d previously tried to expel CICIG’s head but had been blocked by the Constitutional Court. Under the administration of his successor and ally, current president Alejandro Giammattei, the Attorney General’s Office dismantled anti-corruption efforts and criminalised justice operators who had worked alongside CICIG. Judges and prosecutors have been investigated, detained, convicted and forced into exile.
Among those unjustly imprisoned for doing their work is Virginia Laparra, featured in CIVICUS’s #StandAsMyWitness campaign. A former prosecutor in the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, Virginia has faced criminal proceedings since 2018, when she reported a judge to the Disciplinary Board of the Judiciary for possible inappropriate behaviour. In retaliation, the judge filed two criminal complaints against her. She was arrested in February 2022 and for nine months she was held in preventive detention in a tiny cell in inhumane conditions. Following an unusually speedy trial in December 2022, she was sentenced to four years in prison under accusations of ‘continued abuses of authority’.
The run-up to the vote
State capture and corruption have impacted on the quality of civic space and democratic competition. Those denouncing corruption, collusion, illegal private sector practices and human rights abuses, including civil society activists, journalists and justice operators, have been increasingly subjected to smear campaigns, surveillance, harassment and criminalisation by state authorities. Many have been pushed to exile.
With no protection mechanism in place, these violations have paved the way for further attacks, including physical aggression, often by unidentified personnel. Rising violence against journalists and human rights defenders led the CIVICUS Monitor to downgrade its civic space rating for Guatemala to the second-worst category, repressed, in March 2023.
Attacks can be fatal. In March, Orlando Villanueva, owner of Noticias del Puerto, a website reporting on local news and politics in the capital of the Izabal department in eastern Guatemala, was the latest victim, shot dead by an unidentified group.
Restrictions on civic freedoms increased in the run-up to elections. A leading organisation protecting human rights defenders, Unidad de Protección de Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala (UDEFEGUA) and its director, Jorge Santos, were targeted through the spread of false allegations. And on 14 June, José Rubén Zamora, founder and director 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. In May, elPeriódico announced it was shutting down.
An observation mission carried out by Reporters Without Borders and other international press freedom and human rights organisations a month before the election warned that the absence of basic press freedoms made it impossible to guarantee a legitimate electoral process.
The electoral 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, of the People’s Liberation Movement, 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 of Citizen Prosperity was also disqualified – evidently for no other reason than not being part of the political establishment.
Voices from the frontline
Jordán Rodas Andrade is a lawyer specialising in constitutional guarantees and fundamental rights, transparency and anti-corruption. In 2015 he was elected vice-president of the Guatemalan Bar Association and between 2017 and 2022 he was Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman. In exercising this role he was repeatedly criminalised and threatened, as a result of which he had to go into exile. He is one of the candidates who were blocked from running.
The presidential election was not free and competitive, because a fair election requires not only that there be no fraud on voting day, but also that a series of elements are present throughout the process, from the moment the elections are called. The election was called on 20 January, and on 27 January the state closed the door on us and prevented our participation. Not only did this violate our right to stand for election, but it also restricted citizens’ right to have a full range of options.
In reaction to this exclusion, Thelma Cabrera called for a null vote, and numbers don’t lie. The null vote actually won, with 17 per cent, a higher share than that received by the candidate who came first, Sandra Torres, who got around 15 per cent. People are clearly fed up.
The unfairness of the competition also manifested itself in the official party’s handling of public resources and the government’s extremely close relationship with some Supreme Electoral Tribunal magistrates.
But the fact that Bernardo Arévalo managed to enter the second round is, alongside the mass of null votes, blank votes and abstentions, a sign of enormous rejection of the system. I have high expectations for the second round, in which I hope that the Guatemalan people will participate massively and take advantage of this opportunity to choose a better future.
Above all, the anti-corruption message must be accompanied by real action. Revenge against justice operators must stop, the rule of law must be restored and the freedom of the independent press must be guaranteed.
The new president should form a cabinet inclusive of progressive sectors. He should convene political parties, social forces and Indigenous peoples’ movements to jointly make a proposal that ensures public policies benefit those most in need.
The new government should totally dissociate itself from the malpractices of the past and be very careful about power’s temptations. Its responsibility to those who have placed their trust in it must prevail. There will be temptations along the way, so it is essential that it place its bets on people who are ethical, capable and consistent with the values projected in the electoral campaign, as people voted for them because they recognised them first and foremost as an honest party.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Jordán. Read the full interview here.
What happened on 25 June
At stake on 25 June were not only the presidency but also the election of 160 congressional seats, mayors and councillors in Guatemala’s 340 municipalities and 20 deputies to the Central American Parliament.
Around two dozen parties competed for congressional seats, and 16 got representation, producing a highly fragmented body in which the current ruling party commands the biggest minority, even though its presidential candidate didn’t even make the runoff. This bodes badly for whoever wins the presidency – even more so if it’s the first-round surprise runner-up, alien to the deeply entrenched power elite.
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 Bernardo Arévalo’s good performance.
The front-runner, Sandra Torres of Unión Nacional de la Esperanza (National Unity of Hope), is a political insider. She was Guatemala’s first lady between 2008 and 2011 and divorced her husband, then-president Álvaro Colom, to circumvent a legal ban on immediate family members running for office. Now standing for the third time in a row, she received 16 per cent of the vote.
Torres would, if elected, become Guatemala’s first female president. But she’s by no means a champion of women’s rights. A conservative politician, some have seen her as mildly progressive because of some popular proposals such as eliminating tax on basic staples, reducing the cost of energy and distributing a salary bonus – in Holy Week, of all dates. But she’s also a vocal anti-abortion activist – in a country where abortion is illegal except when needed to save a woman’s life – 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 caucus that has given voice to a progressive opposition. He’s also the son of former progressive president Juan José Arévalo, remembered as a political heavyweight but forced into exile in the 1950s – which is why the now-presidential hopeful was born in Uruguay and raised in Chile and Mexico. His running mate, low-key feminist Karin Herrera, is a microbiology researcher and university professor.
Unlike many Guatemalan parties, Semilla 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 in the heat of mass anti-corruption protests that broke out in 2015, and made Congress in 2019. That year, its presidential candidate was disqualified from the race. But the party found its footing among middle class groups, young people and women, particularly in Guatemala City. This time, it was the rare party that didn’t endorse a pre-election anti-rights declaration on ‘Life and Family’ committing candidates to preventing the advancement of sexual and reproductive rights and LGBTQI+ rights. And crucially, if Arévalo wins the runoff, the fight against corruption is likely to resume.
Opinion polls had placed Arévalo eighth or ninth among the many contenders, so his performance caught elites off guard.
People are tired and they showed it at the ballot box on 25 June, when they said no to a return to the past and yes to a proposal that sends a message of hope for the fight against corruption.
There’s no guarantee he’ll win the run-off. To do so, he’ll have to gain the votes of the many who abstained or cast blank and invalid votes not out of apathy but disaffection. But the fact that Arévalo might win has galvanised those who currently profit from corruption, who are 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 the demands further and calling for a rerun.
It was to be expected that the parties that benefit from corruption would coalesce to prevent a potential Arevalo victory, including by using dirty smear tactics during the runoff campaign. Their rapid shift from the electoral to the judicial arena, however, has come as a surprise.
While various incidents were indeed 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’. Arévalo condemned it all as an intimidatory manoeuvre, asked his opponents to submit their complaints through the legally established procedures 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 final results until complaints are resolved. Some fear an attempt to annul the elections will come next. The European Union’s observation mission and the Organization of American States, the regional organisation for the Americas, have denounced the political manoeuvrings and called for the will of voters to be respected.
Guatemala now 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 before the scheduled inauguration day 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.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Guatemalan judicial bodies must follow election complaint procedures as established by law and respect the will of voters as expressed at the ballot box.
Civil society must monitor both the judicial appeals and the eventual election campaign, advocating respect for civic freedoms and combating disinformation.
The international community should sound the alarm about Guatemala’s potential democratic regression and keep on the pressure to prevent it happening.
Cover photo by Silvia Rodríguez/AFP via Getty Images