The first round of the Guatemalan general elections was held this Sunday and was marked both by those present and those absent from the ballot, as the electoral authorities disqualified some of the main contenders. Sandra Torres, from the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE) party, obtained 15.69% of the votes, and the surprise candidate Bernardo Arévalo from the progressive Movimiento Semilla received 11.8%. They will compete in the second round on Sunday, August 20. Null votes positioned themselves at 17 points, taking first place.
The electoral process was marred by multiple irregularities, allegations, and the disqualification of four candidacies, including that of indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera (MLP), the only left-wing candidate who showed a chance in the polls. Another excluded candidate was businessman Carlos Pineda from the Prosperidad Ciudadana (PC) party, who held the lead in the polls, a decision based on criteria that have been described as "arbitrary" by the research organization WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America). In addition, the Sixth Chamber of the Guatemalan Court of Administrative Litigation vetoed the candidacies of former prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche and Roberto Arzú from the Podemos Party.
Guatemala entered this electoral contest with a record fragmentation of candidacies. There were 22 officially registered presidential tickets, which represented, for the most part, the continuity of the conservative elite that has governed for almost four decades, since the return of democracy. Ultimately, it was an election where the manipulation of the electoral options seemed to align with the interests of the current established powers.
On this occasion, the popular vote, with approximately 9.3 million eligible voters, was to elect the President and Vice President of the Nation, as well as the next 160 Representatives of Congress, 340 Local Councilmembers, and 20 principal Representatives for the Central American Parliament. The winning presidential ticket will not begin its term until January 2024, similar to the current president Alejandro Giammattei, who won in August 2019.
The elections were conducted through universal, secret, and direct voting under the mechanism of a runoff election, given the eventuality that none of the participating political spaces be able to obtain an absolute majority of 50% + 1. In this circumstance, the runoff election will be between the two candidates with the most votes.
It is worth noting that in this country, presidential re-election is constitutionally prohibited, which means that the incumbent President cannot run for a consecutive term. This provision aims to promote the alternation of power and avoid excessive concentration of power in a single person. However, recent Guatemalan history shows that this prohibition has not guaranteed a real alternation of power. The Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala) (CICIG) has shown, prior to its expulsion, how power has been coopted by organized crime, vested interests, and economic groups that find in the State the mechanisms to enrich themselves and co-opt other social sectors.
Currently, Guatemala is approaching 40 years of democracy. However, the political context of recent years and the current electoral campaign have been marked by doubts regarding the discretionary nature of the definition of the electoral options and the protection of human rights. Trust in politicians, and consequently in the current candidates, has been greatly eroded by the numerous accusations of corruption and fraud that have recently emerged. In fact, this has caught the attention of international organizations such as the Human Rights Watch, which has expressed concern about the deterioration of human, civil, and political rights. It can therefore be affirmed that these elections represent a great challenge for Guatemala, to be able to reaffirm its democratic justice and regain the trust of its citizens.
The candidates for the runoff
A woman came in first place heading into the runoff. Former First Lady Sandra Torres is making her third attempt to govern Guatemala. She entered the public sphere in 2008 alongside her then-husband and Guatemalan President, Álvaro Colom, who governed between 2008 and 2012 with the political force Unidad Nacional por la Esperanza, implementing policies characterized by income redistribution. In her third attempt to reach the presidency, after losing the runoff elections in 2015 and 2019, Torres chose evangelical pastor Romeo Guerra as her running mate.
The candidate from the progressive Movimiento Semilla, which emerged from the 2015 protests, achieved an unexpected second place in the vote count with 97% of the ballots counted. Arévalo, overlooked in the polls, bears a well-known name in Guatemala being the son of President Juan José Arévalo (1945-1951), the first democratic president after decades of dictatorship. His strong support base in the city of Guatemala and among the middle class, women, and young people allowed him to enter the runoff election with a great capacity to add votes in the second round.
The strategies of both candidates to capture the null vote, which represented 17% of the total votes cast, address the 43% abstention rate, and form alliances to gain support from other candidates - including the excluded candidates - will be crucial in determining who can best represent change in Guatemala.
The challenge of governing Guatemala
Unlike previous elections, this vote was held in an atmosphere of total distrust and uncertainty. The ruling coalition has used all its available resources to influence this electoral process. The lack of an independent judiciary, the closure of spaces for civil society, the besiegement of the media, and the persecution of journalists, as well as the exclusion of presidential candidates, have become commonplace. All of this is compounded by the political persecution of those who participated in the social uprising of 2015.
Migration seems to be one of the preferred options for Guatemalans, as evidenced by the half a million people leaving the country each year. The criminalization and persecution of social leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, and anti-corruption prosecutors are undoubtedly some of the factors that limit the popular reaction and the alternatives for change.
It is important to recall that the Guatemalan justice system sentenced its most critical and influential journalist, José Rubén Zamora, director of the newspaper El Periódico, to 6 years in prison following a trial that all analysts described as a farce and political revenge, and which the international press denounced as a "witch hunt." Between 2018 and 2023, at least 30 journalists and justice officials went into exile, denouncing criminal persecution against them.
At first glance, the elections seemed to be a prelude to the consolidation of an autocratic regime in Guatemala, a country that experienced a civil war for over 36 years, resulting in 200,000 deaths and 50,000 missing persons. However, the electoral results reflect a citizenry that has said "No" to the political options that represent the status quo, a continuity of the infamous pact of the corrupt, and the survival of an economic-judicial-military elite that has condemned 60% of the population to poverty.
Governing Guatemala will not be an easy task for the next president. The practice of patronage and the control of territorial power are reflected in the parliamentary results, where the ruling party maintains a majority. Social transformations do not happen overnight, especially in the context of democratic regression that the country has been experiencing for decades. However, either of the two winners would represent a starting point for a change in the historically pursued policies, which Guatemalan men and women have said enough to at the polls.
Dolores Gandulfo. Director of the Electoral Observatory of the Permanent Conference of Political Parties of Latin America and the Caribbean (COPPPAL). Member of the Observatory of Political Reforms of Latin America. University Professor (Universidad Nacional Scalabrini Ortiz- Universidad del Salvador) and member of the Network of Political Scientists.