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Why Guatemala’s first-round elections were so surprising

Center-left candidate Bernardo Arévalo will head to a runoff against Sandra Torres.

A woman with her hair in a black braid, wearing a colorful shawl and a blue medical mask, fills out paperwork behind a room divider.
A woman votes at a polling station in San Juan Sacatepéquez, on June 25, 2023, during general elections.
Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

Two candidates for Guatemala’s presidency — Sandra Torres, Guatemala’s former first lady and head of Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), and Bernardo Arévalo, a center-left candidate campaigning against the nation’s powerful business interests — will head to a runoff on August 20.

With leading candidates barred from running, press freedom under serious attack, and many of the country’s institutions co-opted in defense of the political establishment, Sunday’s elections were in some ways less a celebration of either candidate and more a referendum on the status quo.

Arévalo’s surprise success, in particular, was a sign of Guatemalans’ discontent with corruption and increasing authoritarianism.

The current president, Alejandro Giammattei, is limited to one term in office, but the system that enabled him could continue, in part because of the active role he and his predecessors played in weaponizing it for their own advantage. Guatemala has suffered from violence, poverty, and corruption for decades; now the military, economic, and political establishment, or “pacto de corruptos,” has effectively captured the state, eroding democratic institutions and the rule of law in Central America’s most populous country.

Sunday’s elections covered more than just the presidency — Guatemalans also voted for the vice president and all 160 members of the unicameral legislature, as well as mayors and municipal governments in Guatemala’s 340 municipios, and 20 members of the Central American Parliament.

Guatemala’s government has the contours of a hybrid regime in that it holds elections, but they cannot be considered free or fair. Though its mechanisms appear democratic, the underlying practice — how the powerful used those mechanisms and institutions — tends toward autocracy.

Guatemala’s Constitutional Court prohibited popular anti-establishment candidates like businessman Carlos Pineda, Indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera, and businessman and political scion Roberto Arzú from running in this year’s elections; Cabrera and Arzú both ran in the 2019 elections but neither received enough votes to move to a runoff. Candidate Edmond Mulet was also threatened with potential exclusion from the race but was allowed to stand in Sunday’s contest.

Some of the leading candidates have ties to previous governments; Zury Ríos was a long-time member of Congress and is the daughter of General Efraín Ríos Montt, who took over the government in a 1982 coup and in 2013 was convicted of ordering acts of genocide to suppress internal dissent, though that conviction was later vacated. Torres is a former first lady who is making her third bid for the presidency; in 2015 and 2019, she finished second.

Arévalo’s unexpected success stems in part from his anti-establishment campaigning. His attacks on Guatemala’s powerful coalition of industries — the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (CACIF) — was part of his campaign against corruption and impunity. In a campaign video for Semilla, or seed, urging Guatemalans to “vote different,” Arévalo promised an honest and capable government and emphasized the possibility for change.

Guatemalan democracy rests on shaky foundations

Like many post-colonial Latin American countries, Guatemala has never had a clear and easy path to a truly democratic system with strong and independent institutions.

The US interrupted Guatemala’s initial transition to democracy in the 1950s; the CIA instituted a plan, called Operation PBFORTUNE, to overthrow Guatemala’s elected leftist President Jacobo Arbenz. Arbenz’s land reform project threatened the United Fruit Company, a US-based fruit concern that had manipulated Central American governments to serve its interests for years. In the Cold War 1950s, the US government was also concerned about Arbenz’s friendly relations with communist bloc countries, though the closeness of those relations, particularly to Soviet bloc nations, was likely exaggerated to support intervention.

That meddling likely sowed the seeds for decades of instability and civil war that were only abated by a peace process in the 1990s and reforms in the early 2000s.

In particular, the 2007 implementation of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, or CICIG, aimed to root out criminal organizations and corruption in the government to bolster the rule of law.

Under CICIG, Guatemalan prosecutors were tasked with investigating crime at the highest levels, even bringing corruption charges against a former president and vice president, among others. It was enormously successful, providing a model for other Latin American countries where similar problems — state capture, organized crime, and graft — have been allowed to flourish with impunity.

That mandate expired in 2019 under former President Jimmy Morales, who faced his own accusations of corruption and pushed the country further into autocracy.

Troubling anti-democratic patterns and state capture, where governments significantly cater to the demands of private interests, continued under the deeply unpopular Giammattei. Juan Luis Font, a Guatemalan journalist and political analyst who left the country in 2022, told Vox that “Giammatei has spearheaded this capture for the benefit of corruption and the economic elite meekly accepts it.”

Both Giammattei and Attorney General María Consuelo Porras, who has been sanctioned by the US for “significant corruption,” have both been accused of graft; in 2021, the attorney general’s office opened a probe into allegations that Giammattei had taken a bribe from a Russian businessman in exchange for a dock at one of Guatemala’s primary ports, Reuters reported at the time. Juan Francisco Sandoval, the former head of Guatemala’s Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, raised the allegations publicly, but then was quickly dismissed by Porras.

In addition to serious concerns about official corruption, government transparency and accountability, and civil rights violations, Guatemala suffers from serious violent crime. Human trafficking, drug and arms smuggling, and gang violence related to the drug trade all contribute to Guatemala’s high crime levels, according to the Global Organized Crime Index.

Those opposed to the government and committed to exposing its wrongdoing have been forced to flee or risk prison time, as in the case of José Rubén Zamora, founder of the Guatemalan outlet El Periódico.

The justice system, however, is beholden to Guatemala’s powerful elites, making it more responsive to their needs — like going after adversaries.

Furthermore, according to the Global Organized Crime Index, “organized crime continues to penetrate the country’s political system, particularly via links between drug cartels and members of congress, the army and law-enforcement authorities,” a 2021 report found.

“Independent media and journalists are currently suffering a permanent attack against our work, freedom of expression, and the right of the population to be informed,” Marielos Monzon, a Guatemalan journalist, told Vox.

“We see a malicious use of criminal law by the justice system and the public ministry to persecute journalists and columnists. And also attacks from social networks with defamation and slander. They want to silence and censor journalists by prosecuting and imprisoning them. Between 2022 and 2023 alone, 22 journalists had to go into exile to protect their freedom.”

What are Guatemalans’ choices in such a flawed system?

Without an independent media and strong institutions, this year’s elections don’t offer much for a more resilient and democratic Guatemala — nor a safer, more prosperous one — given the choice of candidates. As much as 13 percent of voting Guatemalans are so fed up with their country’s politics that they planned to cast a “null” vote, as Pineda encouraged his supporters to do in protest of his exclusion from the contest. Approximately 25 percent of the ballots were blank or spoiled, according to Reuters; El País reported that approximately 17.4 percent of those ballots were null votes.

Torres’s UNE party is deeply entrenched in Congress and though it’s an important power, it reportedly trades favors like government jobs and contracts for votes. That tactic makes the party — and Torres as its head — more vulnerable to corruption. Furthermore, UNE is heavily involved with the executive branch, the judiciary, and the country’s elites; should Torres win Sunday’s vote or a potential runoff, those facts don’t bode well for a major change in Guatemala’s politics.

Arévalo is the son of Guatemala’s first president, Juan Jose Arévalo, whose nationalistic and progressive policies favored workers and labor unions, as well as Guatemala’s Indigenous population. In addition to his anti-corruption pledge, Arévalo has prioritized improving the quality of life for Guatemala’s poor and reducing inequality.

Semilla has the largest number of congressional seats of any center-left party and has fielded one other candidate since it was founded in 2017 in the wake of anti-corruption protests around the investigations into — and later incarceration of — former President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti for customs fraud. Thelma Aldana, a former attorney general and supporter of the CICIG project, ran on the Semilla ticket in 2019’s election but was removed from the race on charges of embezzlement. Aldana is now in exile in the US.

Ríos, the daughter of former dictator Ríos Montt, has campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, but Font told Vox she “represent[s] the most accurate continuity of the system.” Ríos has also embraced the strongman tactics of Bukele in dealing with organized crime, calling his system of jailing thousands of people for suspected affiliation with gangs “a model.”

Mulet and Torres have both denounced what they have said are voting irregularities. “There are worrying reports that the ruling party is using the coercion of money and power,” Mulet said this afternoon as he cast his ballot, according to TeleSUR. “These elections are key opportunities to put a stop to corruption.”

Mulet has also campaigned against corruption; however, he has come out against CICIG during his campaign despite his past support for the commission. “CICIG never again in Guatemala,” he tweeted in May. “We’re not going to revive something that’s in the past,” he added in an accompanying video, in which he also said that corruption is “destroying Guatemala” and his party would “be determined in this fight.”

Sunday’s surprising election results do provide a sense of cautious hope for some Guatemalans — or at least the potential for change. As Font told Vox, “I think that now the choice is clearly between the status quo and rejecting the system as it is working.”

Update, June 26, 3:20 pm ET: This story, originally published June 25, has been updated with results from the first-round election.

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