Overcoming Obstacles Toward Democratic Transition in Guatemala

The nature of the social struggles that currently characterize the situation in Central America as a deep political crisis is the result of a long process of imbalances and problems created by the post-war economic growth, that were never fully satisfied.  But especially, these social struggles result from permanently deferred demands, repeated violations of rights, in summary, peaceful and legal social and political struggles that have been illegalized and suppressed by the State.

(Torres, Crisis of Power in Central America, 1981: 71).

On August 20, 2023, nearly ten million Guatemalans went to the polls to choose the successor to Alejandro Giammattei, between Sandra Torres of the Unidad Nacional por la Esperanza (National Unity for Hope) (UNE) and Bernardo Arévalo of the Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement). Both candidates were the most voted in the first round on June 25, within the framework of a fragmented system of 22 presidential candidates.

A study on democracy and human rights in Guatemala by the Association for the Advancement of Social Sciences in Guatemala (AVANCSO) states that "in the last 30 years, fragmentation, multi-partisanship, and a wide range of 'cardboard' or 'fake-front' parties have prevailed; a political opposition force that articulates a counter-hegemonic platform for a diverse, multicultural, and plurinational nation has not been generated. This means that the Peace Accords agenda has been abandoned, and the State has been unable to carry out a radical structural reform and strengthen real democracy in the country. The living conditions of the population, as well as their civil and political rights, have deteriorated, as revealed by human development indices and corruption perception indices.”

In recent years, poverty, racism, violence, insecurity, homophobia, migration, and internal displacement of the population have intensified.

Jeraldine del Cid Castro and Luis Padilla Vassaux, in the book on 'Populism in Central America,' highlight that the fragility of the party system in Guatemala has led to the emergence of franchise parties, organized around charismatic leaders increasingly adopting conservative and even regressive discourses on human rights, supported by religious organizations.

The former human rights ombudsman, Jordan Rodas Andrade, had to leave his position due to political persecution for simply defending the rights of women, indigenous peoples, and the LGBTQ+ community. During his five-year term, Andrade faced 18 requests to lift his immunity for investigation, was summoned seven times to Congress, and had funds withheld to pay salaries, leading to financial suffocation.

In a context characterized by ungovernability, social and political polarization, and common and institutional violence, the presidential elections of June and August 2023 stood out for the large electoral offering and the disqualification of many candidacies. Seven months of agony followed the popular will expressed at the polls to achieve the long-awaited government transition.

The Path of Judicialization Preceding the Election

To review the systematic process of judicial obstruction before the electoral process, on April 13, the Guatemalan Supreme Court denied definitively the legal safeguard presented by the Movement for the Liberation of Peoples (MLP) to overturn the rejection of the registration of indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera for these presidential elections.

Paradoxically, in parallel, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal validated the registration of the representative of the Conservative Valor Party, Zury Ríos Sosa, who had already been disqualified from participating in the 2019 elections because she is the daughter of a coup leader, the dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, de facto president of the country between 1982 and 1983. It is noteworthy that the Constitution of Guatemala establishes that relatives of coup leaders cannot run for the presidency.

The disqualification of Thelma Cabrera was joined by that of Roberto Arzú and Carlos Pineda, some of whom led the polls before the first round. This assured that the electoral offering would be aligned with the interests of the ruling power.


1In 'Populism in Central America: The Missing Piece to Understand a Global Phenomenon.' Compiled by María Esperanza Casullo and Harry Brown Araúz. Siglo Veintiuno Editores. Pages 175-208.".

Surprising Triumph of the Seed Movement

Sandra Torres of the National Unity for Hope, who led the polls, consolidated her position with 15.7% in first place. To the surprise of the polls and the political system, Bernardo Arévalo of the Seed Movement secured second place with 11.8%, entering the runoff election.

His invisibility in the polls made his participation seem less threatening to the existing ruling power.

Arévalo is the son of former President Juan José Arévalo, whose administration brought about significant social changes to the lives of Guatemalans. His father was the first popularly elected president, and his government was the first of the revolution that would continue with Jacobo Arbenz.

The surprise of a candidate entering the runoff election who had not been in the government's calculations, and therefore not subject to disqualification, posed a vulnerability to the ruling elite's project to retain power. Faced with this, they deployed all resources, especially legal ones, to suspend the Seed Movement and ensure that the candidate, who finished third, coincidentally from the ruling party Vamos, would compete in the runoff with Sandra Torres, who was running for the presidency for the third time, and whose electoral ceiling represented her biggest challenge in achieving the first investiture.

At that moment, the threatened elite activated a systematic strategy of judicialization through government-affiliated political parties, followed by the action of the Public Ministry, encroaching on the functions of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, demanding that it suspend the formalization of election results, so as to cancel the Seed Movement, wear down the presidential formula of Bernardo Arévalo and Karin Herrera, and create uncertainty among the citizens about the outcome of the process leading to the runoff election.

The regional and international community clearly expressed that attempting to condition the popular will for the runoff represented a breach of the constitutional order. These expressions, multiplied among heads of state, representatives of international organizations, and actors in international civil society, allowed the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to empower itself and successfully reach the second round of the election process with guarantees of respect for the popular will. Despite allegations of fraud by Sandra Torres of UNE, in agreement with President Giammattei and government-aligned parties, the overwhelming victory of the Seed Movement's formula with over 60% prevented these allegations from escalating.

When the Supreme Electoral Tribunal officially declared Arévalo's victory, attention was drawn to the long period until the inauguration on January 14, 2024. An international campaign by the elected president was initiated to safeguard the popular will and prevent the outgoing government from taking actions that would condition the new government.

The U.S. government itself revoked visas for Guatemalan officials and businessmen, and imposed sanctions on prosecutors and judges to show strong support for democratic transition in Guatemala.

Objective "January 14"

As the new year began, with the announcement of the new gender-balanced cabinet and the arrival of leaders from the region and the world, it seemed that what had seemed distant a few months ago was being consolidated. Even the president-elect, in his inauguration speech, stated that "just a few months ago, many came to believe that the country was destined for authoritarian regression." Delays in the swearing-in of the tenth legislature, which was responsible for delivering credentials to the new president, caused concern both within and outside the country. Representatives from different countries in the region and the world, and international organizations invited to the inauguration, gathered in the capital city to call on the Congress of the Republic to fulfill its constitutional mandate and hand over power as required by the constitution on January 14, warning that there could be sanctions for those obstructing the transfer of power; an atypical situation for an event that has ceremonial purposes.

In the congressional dispute, the Seed Movement showed great political skill by forming alliances with other parties (Cabal, Bien, Winaq, and Viva), securing more than the 81 votes needed to constitute a majority and avoiding sabotage in the legislative body. This allowed them to consolidate Samuel Perez Alvarez as president of the board, triumphing over the alliance between Alejandro Giammattei, Zury Rios, and Sandra Torres.

After midnight on Monday, January 15, overcoming obstacles and the long judicial onslaught, Bernardo Arévalo was sworn in as President of Guatemala, coming to power with the Seed Movement, an organization that emerged in the wake of the 2015 protests, organizing Guatemalans who took to the streets to protest against the Pact of the Corrupt or Impunity and the suppression of rights. Samuel Pérez Álvarez, president-elect for Congress from the same movement, placed the Presidential Sash in the absence of outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei.

A noteworthy gesture, considering the recent history of governments that denigrated Guatemalan indigenous peoples, and despite the fact that the Seed Movement initially relied on urban middle-class, youth, and women; the president, before addressing the public in Constitution Plaza, visited the headquarters of the Public Ministry where indigenous peoples camped for 105 days, demanding the resignation of Prosecutor Consuelo Porras.

The challenges will be immense; social transformations do not happen overnight, especially in contexts of democratic regression that the country has experienced for decades. However, the fact that the outgoing government did not retain control of the congress is a first battle won for governance. It is also auspicious that, two days before leaving office, Alejandro Giammattei was sanctioned by the United States government for being considered a "significantly corrupt" person.

As the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal said: "They wanted to bury us, but they didn't know we were seeds." Now comes the time to pause, calm the adrenaline of these seven months of uncertain transition, and quickly connect with the citizens' demands so that Guatemalans stop thinking of migration as the only possible way to a better life. At the same time, efforts should be made to recover, in the medium term, the democratic institutional framework of the State.

Dolores Gandulfo is Director of the Electoral Observatory of the Permanent Conference of Latin American and Caribbean Political Parties (COPPPAL). She is a member of the Observatory of Political Reforms in Latin America and a Professor at the Scalabrini Ortiz National University, National University of Pilar, and the University of El Salvador (Argentina). She is a member of the Network of Political Scientists and the Association of International Relations Studies of Argentina (AERIA).

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