The Guatemalan Surprise
GUATEMALA CITY – Guatemala’s presidential election on August 20 was full of surprises. First, the anti-corruption candidate Bernardo Arévalo rode a tsunami of anti-establishment sentiment to capture the presidency, winning 58% of the vote, 21 percentage points ahead of former first lady Sandra Torres, a perennial candidate defeated in the second round for the third time.
Arévalo, the son of a beloved former president who led the country during a brief period of democratic stability, does not fit the mold of recent Guatemalan presidents, who have largely done the bidding of Guatemala’s business elites. He was born in Uruguay, holds a Ph.D. in sociology, and speaks multiple languages. He is not an obvious ally for Guatemala’s majority Mayan population, which has long suffered from racism and extreme poverty. But he won with broad support among all ethnic and economic groups, as well as rural and urban voters, and both the elderly and young.
Prior to the June 25 first round, Arévalo was polling in the low single digits. Three days before the vote, he was not even mentioned in an article on the election by Spain’s El País.”
Prior to the June 25 first round, Arévalo was polling in the low single digits. Three days before the vote, he was not even mentioned in an article on the election by Spain’s El País. He squeaked into the second round with only 12% of votes, five percentage points behind Torres. After the authorities disqualified three popular candidates, the big winner was the null vote, at 17%.
That result suggested frustration among many voters, but it was not clear Arévalo would capitalize on the public disenchantment. Though far-right Guatemalans had long vilified the center-left Torres as dangerous and corrupt, they rallied around her campaign. President Alejandro Giammattei’s supporters, who also long disliked Torres, also backed her in the second round. For her part, Torres referred to her rival derisively as “the Uruguayan” and warned of his supposedly communist agenda.
Guatemala’s Justice System on Trial
Arévalo had to overcome more than Torres and her conservative allies.
Guatemala’s last president, Jimmy Morales, was elected on an anti-corruption platform but turned against the country’s UN anti-corruption mission – the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG – as he and his family came under scrutiny. He forced its closure in 2019. Morales also appointed the current attorney general, Consuelo Porras, who went on to replace many of Guatemala’s leading anti-corruption investigators with loyalists. That backlash against anti-corruption champions was a turning point, resulting in the exile of dozens of judges, investigators, and prosecutors, including a former attorney general, Thelma Aldana, in 2018. Many of those exiled had worked alongside CICIG to prosecute senior government officials, including a former president and vice president. Last year, the State Department sanctioned Porras for obstructing justice and undemocratic activities. Nevertheless, Giammattei reappointed her to a second four-year term.
That backlash against anti-corruption champions was a turning point, resulting in the exile of dozens of judges, investigators, and prosecutors, including a former attorney general.”
Following Arévalo’s unexpected performance in the first round, Porras and her allies in the judiciary pursued multiple strategies to disqualify him and his party, the Movimiento Semilla. She opened criminal investigations of Semilla’s founding members, including Arévalo. She also alleged, without evidence, that the party had relied upon 5,000 fraudulent signatures on its registration paperwork in 2017. Investigators even targeted the head of Guatemala’s voter registry for permitting Semilla to compete in the election.
These efforts failed to scuttle or postpone the second round or throw out the results. International observers quickly validated the process, the US government congratulated the winner, and Giammattei promised an orderly transition. Still, as Arévalo prepares to take office in January, he and his party continue to face a slew of legal challenges. Since the second round of the election, Porras has issued arrest warrants for the founding members of Semilla, although not for the president-elect. On August 24, she asked the Guatemalan Congress to disband Semilla and refuse to seat its elected members, a gambit eventually blocked by the Constitutional Court.
The Easy Part
Navigating these legal challenges is hard enough, but Arévalo and his allies face even more daunting challenges ahead. He will have to manage the enormous expectations of his supporters, while administering a government beset by deeply engrained corruption, including links to organized crime. That will require rebuilding procurement and public works contracting systems and finding ways to promote structural reforms in a highly divided Congress.
Arévalo will have an ally in Washington. The US government hopes reforms that strengthen Guatemala’s democratic institutions will reduce migration, including by exposing organizations that smuggle migrants. But building an independent, reliable criminal justice system will not be easy, especially with Porras in office until 2026.
Of equal importance is the need to address the chronic economic hardships and massive social needs that most Guatemalans endure. As a minority party in Congress, Semilla will have littler control over the budget, so it will be difficult for Arévalo to find the resources to fulfill his promises to the country’s neglected poor.
Arévalo could face resistance from conservative elements in the country’s private sector, which typically wield strong influence over Guatemala’s president and lawmakers. For example, legislation to break up monopolies, which Arévalo championed while in Congress, will face serious opposition. Some of these companies are linked to extremists who have attacked the news media, civil society organizations, and human rights defenders.
Arévalo could face resistance from conservative elements in the country’s private sector, which typically wield strong influence over Guatemala’s president and lawmakers.”
That said, Guatemala’s private sector is diverse. While Porras and her allies attempted to undermine this year’s election, important private sector actors, including the powerful business association CACIF, joined international calls to respect the rights of voters.
Help is on the Way
So far, Arévalo has received significant support from the international community. Two international observation missions – from the Organization of American States, or OAS, and European Union – strongly condemned attempts by prosecutors to disqualify Semilla and its candidates and to overturn the election results.
The United States was particularly vocal in supporting the election observers and demanding that Guatemalan authorities respect the results of the first round and allow the second round to go forward. “The region and the international community must stand together in solidarity with the Guatemalan people,” the US ambassador to the OAS, Frank Mora, said in a speech at the organization.
Thanks to that international attention, and above all to the overwhelming popular support for Arévalo, Guatemala’s democracy has survived this latest test. But opponents of the president-elect have not surrendered. Even now that the votes are all counted, Arévalo’s opportunity to implement his reform agenda will depend upon continued vigilance by the president-elect, his party, his supporters, and his international allies to defend this historic victory in the hope for a better future for Guatemala.
 While significant, Arévalo’s 21 percentage point margin was not the largest in recent times. Former President Jimmy Morales defeated Sandra Torres in the second round of the 2015 election by roughly 30 percentage points. In the 2015 election, Morales, a former comedian and actor, ran as an anti-establishment, anti-corruption candidate, pitching himself as “neither a politician, nor corrupt.”
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