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11 Jul 2023 | Commentary

Five Things to Know About the Guatemalan Elections

Ana María Méndez-Dardón and Corie Welch

Guatemala held general elections on June 25, with Bernardo Arévalo, the progressive leader of the Movimiento Semilla party, unexpectedly launching into the second round on August 20, alongside Sandra Torres of the right-wing Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE) party. On July 1st, the Constitutional Court (CC) suspended the official release of the election results and after the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) completed the revision process, results were confirmed but not made official despite all legal complaints being resolved according to the Supreme Court’s latest resolution.

The second round of elections is expected to be held on August 20, but without official results, the situation is still uncertain. All this has taken place in the context of democratic backsliding and curtailed freedoms. Here are five things to know about the elections in Guatemala:

1. The outcome of Guatemala’s Presidential Election defied all predictions. What do the vote results tell us?

On June 25, 60.52 percent of voters casted ballots in the country’s presidential elections. Turnout was considerably lower than in previous elections. Of these voters, as many as 24.38 percent could be read as protesting against the current state of Guatemalan politics and the status-quo. 17.38 percent of these expressed their dissatisfaction with the electoral offer by casting a null vote for president and vice president. This null vote took first place, surpassing all candidates by almost 10 percent. In addition, 6.99 percent of votes were blank. Despite widespread dissatisfaction, the preliminary results announced by the TSE indicated that presidential candidates Sandra Torres (15.86 percent) and Bernardo Arévalo (11.77 percent) would make it to the runoff election in August.

On one hand, it was a surprise to many as Arévalo had ranked 8th in the last major poll and Movimiento Semilla, a progressive party that was outspoken on corruption, denounced democratic backsliding and defied the political establishment. On the other hand, Torres has run for president three times and qualified for the runoffs as many times. She did garner support from rural areas which benefited from social programs during the government of her ex-husband, Alvaro Colom, but overall urban middle-class voters rejected her. In 2019, Torres was brought to justice and investigated for illicit electoral financing and unlawful association but was cleared of charges.   

2. Why have results not been confirmed yet? Are the elections and democracy at risk? Is the runoff suspended? 

On July 1, the CC suspended the announcements of results requesting that votes be verified. Politically motivated complaints have impacted electoral integrity and legal certainty. Nine disgruntled parties including Vamos, the party of President Alejandro Giammattei; UNE, representing Torres; and Valor, associated with Zury Ríos, daughter of former dictator Efrain Ríos Montt have introduced legal complaints and publicly alleged there was “fraud” and called for a re-run of the election.

On July 7, following the court’s ruling, the electoral boards cross-checked precinct vote tally sheets from the June 25 election and reported slight percentage variations, confirming the preliminary results. However, the TSE stated that while there are pending administrative and judicial processes, results would not be official until the courts certify that the ruling to cross-check the records has been fully complied with. The same day, Silvia Valdés Quezada, president of the Supreme Court issued a resolution stipulating that the process could not go forward until the electoral authorities who conducted the revision reported back to her on their methods and any inconsistencies found. 

Elections and democracy are at risk as results haven’t been made official yet; even though the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) issued a resolution on July 10, confirming the compliance of the TSE with the CC’s ruling and provisionally rejecting appeals to suspend the process. An official announcement, however, is still pending.

According to the TSE, the runoff is not suspended and it is scheduled for August 20 but without official confirmation on behalf of candidates, the situation remains uncertain. WOLA has called on Guatemalan authorities to respect the results, while an unfounded fraud narrative is a threat to democracy, the judicialization of the process without recognizing the people’s will may already constitute a violation of democracy itself.

3. Were the elections “free” and/or “fair” according to international standards? What have observation missions, both national and international, reported about the day of the election?

WOLA, Human Rights Watch and RFK Human Rights called on the need to protect political rights and free elections, raising concerns on the pre-electoral conditions, as domestic observers condemned the insistence of the TSE in applying differentiated, discretional and inconsistent criteria in the registration and blocking of candidates. In the end, international standards were not fully met as three candidates were blocked from running. The EU also noted an “intimidating environment for the media” that before the election “resulted in self-censorship and limited journalists’ access to information and their freedom to report during the electoral process.”

During the election day, both the European Union (EU) and the Organization of American States (OAS) electoral observation missions observed a “satisfactory election day” and found no evidence of fraud or major irregularities that would call the results into question. Domestic observers also validated the process and concluded that there is no reason to doubt the election results. 

In response to fraud allegations and pending legal complaints, the OAS and EU expressed their concerns on July 2, urging the state of Guatemala to respect the election results and honor the will of the people. On July 8, after observing the vote count verification hearings, the OAS verified that there were no irregularities in the June 25 election results. 

4. Guatemalans also voted for members of Congress and representatives at the municipal level. Are the results as surprising as in the presidential elections? What are the main challenges in this election?  

Unlike the presidential election, the congressional and municipal elections yielded more predictable results, as establishment parties maintained control of the legislature and local governments. Of the 160 representatives elected to Congress, President Giammattei’s Vamos party won the most seats with 39, followed by Sandra Torres’s UNE party with 28 and Bernardo Arévalo’s party Movimiento Semilla with 23. The remainder of the seats were split between a collection of candidates from right-leaning parties with connections to establishment politics and a history of brokering deals with parties like UNE and Vamos.

Democratic backsliding, a breakdown in the rule of law, and a deterioration in human rights can be explained by the lack of judicial independence. Both the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) and the CC have been coopted by illicit networks and played an important role in the mass exile of independent judges and prosecutors and the dismantling of high-level corruption cases.

Without independence across all branches of government, any reversal of recent authoritarian trends will be difficult. The Supreme Court’s term expired in October 2019, but the current Congress has failed to appoint new magistrates amid allegations of irregularities. The upcoming Congress will determine the next magistrates to be appointed as a crucial process to restore judicial independence and respect to the rule of law. In the event that the next President attempts serious reforms to restore democracy in Guatemala, they would have to ally with Congress and promote initiatives to remove obstacles in the judiciary.

In the municipalities, establishment parties Vamos, Cabal, and UNE maintained control, together winning over half of the 340 mayor seats throughout the country. Municipal governments play a key role in the distribution of state funds for infrastructure projects and access to state resources. The Vamos political network has been accused of having links to organized crime and drug trafficking as well as granting favors and projects to corrupt networks to facilitate money laundering. Phantom projects, land grabbing, and attacks on human rights defenders and Indigenous communities are likely to continue to be a major challenge in the municipalities, regardless of who wins the Presidency.

5. In a context marked by democratic backsliding, an anti-corruption candidate who promotes human rights could win the presidency. Why are people so surprised about Arévalo’s election? If elected, what challenges could lie ahead?

Following a period of setbacks in the fight against corruption and impunity, the election results clearly show that Guatemalans expressed their rejection of the political system. It remains to be seen whether a candidate such as Arévalo could restore democratic values and promote human rights. But historically, the Movimiento Semilla party has not been connected to the entrenched political networks with long historical ties to corruption, organized crime, or the dispossession of Indigenous communities.

In fact, Arévalo’s father Juan José Arévalo was Guatemala’s first democratically elected president that ushered in an era of sweeping social and constitutional reforms between 1944 and 1954 known as the “Democratic Spring.” Arévalo’s party– Movimiento Semilla, or the Seed Movement–was born out of another moment of structural reforms in Guatemala in 2015. Massive country-wide protests successfully removed sitting President Otto Pérez Molina after the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG by its Spanish acronym) exposed his involvement in serious corruption. Although it lacks the representation of indigenous leaders, the Semilla movement is connected to academic scholars, urban voters, youth, and anti-impunity activists. 

Having said that, for such a restoration to be possible, the August run-off election needs to occur. If Semilla wins the Presidency, it will be up against a divided Congress, in which it does not hold the majority, a co-opted court system, and strong resistance from elites connected to the military and private sector. The road to democracy continues to be long.