* Photograph credit: Saul Martinez/ Reuters
By Laura Carlsen, Edited by the JASS Mesoamérica Team
Guatemala is teetering on the brink following the surprising results of the first round of elections on June 25, where the ruling group saw its grip threatened by the emergence of a party it did not control. Two presidential candidates will enter the second round scheduled to take place on August 20. The National Unity of Hope (UNE) party represents the continuity of the group in power. Its candidate, Sandra Torresis, is a former first lady and three-time presidential candidate who polled 15.7%.
The relatively new Movimiento Semilla party was a surprise. The polls placed it eighth among the 22 registered candidates. Its candidate, Bernardo Arevalo— who is the son of former president Juan Jose Arevalo who ruled during the period known as “the democratic spring” in Guatemala and is considered a progressive— came in second with 11.8% of the vote. Invalidated votes, a form of protest, surpassed both with 17.4% of the vote.
The Semilla party’s vote was concentrated in the capital and other urban areas and reflects the dissatisfaction of much of the population with the way current politicians have abused power and co-opted democratic institutions. The executive, legislative, and judicial branches, along with other sectors of economic and political power, have long been in the hands of what Guatemala calls “the pact of the corrupt”. The pact gained its name because many of its members inside and outside the Guatemalan government face charges of corruption and ties to organized crime. They made a series of changes in recent years to grant themselves immunity by altering anti-corruption laws and regulations.
The pact also launched a campaign of persecution against officials in the justice sector, journalists, human rights defenders, social movements, and human rights groups. The crackdown drove more than fifty people involved in the fight against corruption into exile, with several more in jail on fabricated charges, many with false evidence. The most powerful courts, offices, and prosecutors in the country were left in the hands of the corrupt elite.
The current government responded by illegally using the institutions it controls. First, the Constitutional Court granted an injunction to nine of the losing parties (and UNE) that alleged irregularities and fraud and ordered a review of certain election tallies, despite the fact that it does not have the power to issue electoral rulings and that the time for appeals had expired.
When the Electoral Tribunal (TSE) ratified the results, it also became the target of persecution. The Public Ministry carried out two raids on its offices and stole documents. In another attempt to violate the popular will expressed at the polls, Judge Fredy Orellana suspended Semilla’s legal register; Semilla’s party headquarters were also illegally raided. The suspension has been provisionally lifted.
Semilla’s successful candidacy has awakened, on the one hand, hope for change in a political system that responds exclusively to a powerful elite, and on the other hand, the desperation and aggressiveness of politicians who not only face the possibility of losing power but also ending up in jail for charges pending against them. In conversations with JASS allies, women human rights defenders expressed their hope while warning of the need to continue to strengthen movements. Particularly in indigenous movements that expect little from neoliberal and neocolonial institutions, hope is guarded. However, there is broad consensus on the urgency of “stopping the profound deterioration of the rule of law” in the country.
So far, Semilla has maintained its right to participate in the second round and has launched its nationwide campaign, even as the party continues to respond to attacks including searches and arrest warrants against its leadership. Meanwhile, Guatemalans hold almost daily demonstrations to defend democracy and demand the resignation of Attorney General Consuelo Porras, the Special Prosecutor against Impunity Ramón Curruchiche, and Judge Orellana.
Many international organisations, governments, and public figures have condemned the attempts to subvert the popular vote and obstruct the second round required by law. The European Commission and multiple human rights organizations in the United States and Europe have issued statements calling for the defense of democracy in Guatemala. The G13 , which represents the largest group of foreign embassies in the country, issued a similar joint statement.
The Organisation of American States expressed its concern about “the extreme judicialization of the electoral process” and denounced the raids. The US State Department, which historically wields abundant power in Guatemala’s internal affairs, warned on July 2 that: “Undermining the June 25 elections would be a serious threat to democracy with far-reaching implications.”
Repeatedly, the Guatemalan government under President Alejandro Giammattei has rejected the accusations, accusing all these organisations of “interference in our internal affairs”. He urged Guatemalans to close ranks around the defense of the country and nationalism, following a pattern that has been observed in other countries in the region. Judging by its recent actions, “the pact of the corrupt” has decided to go to extremes to undermine the electoral process, despite the possibility of serious national and international consequences.
For one of the poorest countries in Latin America with a long history of struggle and repression, the outcome of the current political crisis could define not only the future—or not—of democracy, but also the livelihoods of thousands of people, especially in the most vulnerable groups: women, indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, the LGBTQ+ community, and youth among them. Sixty percent of the population lives in poverty, and among the indigenous population the rate is even higher. Poverty, along with inequality, increased during the pandemic. Ten percent of the population receives 53% of the national income, while 51% of the female population receives no income at all. Thousands of people from Guatemala migrate toward the U.S. every year, forced to leave their homes and families and face danger and even death along the way.
It is estimated that 40% of the national budget is diverted to corruption: the alliance between extractive industries and the group in power has generated conflict, contamination, and dispossession. Women defenders of land and territory, who play a vital role in this context, are persecuted, criminalised, and, in some cases, murdered. Some defenders stated that a change of government might grant them some relief to continue their crucial work.
On the eve of the second round, several scenarios are possible. At one extreme, the ruling elite could abandon all pretext of legality by suspending elections, barring Semilla from participating, and reverting to outright repression of protests. At the other extreme, popular demands could lead to a peaceful election on August 20 with high voter turnout and a freely exercised vote, which could bring to power a party that is not tied to the corrupt elite and that has committed itself to some of the people’s aspirations, among them gender equity.
The Guatemalan people are fighting for their democracy and their future. They need and deserve the solidarity of people around the world at this critical moment.