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The troubling court decision roiling Guatemala’s elections, explained

“[This] is a major, major threat to the country’s democracy.”

An election official seen in silhouette against a projected image of an electoral record.
Electoral authorities review electoral records projected on a screen at the Electoral Process Operations Center in Guatemala City on July 4, 2023.
Orlando Estrada/AFP/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

This past weekend, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court paused the certification of its recent election results after 10 political parties disputed the outcome and called for a review of the returns. It’s an unprecedented move that could potentially spur a recount, and one that further undercuts the country’s tenuous democracy ahead of an anticipated runoff in August.

There were already questions about the legitimacy of Guatemala’s June 25 elections for the presidency, legislature, and local mayoral seats after multiple candidates — including those who’ve been critical of lawmakers currently in power — were prevented from participating. In the end, no candidate, in a crowded field of 29, won an outright majority to secure the presidency.

As a result, the top two finishers — the former first lady Sandra Torres, who received 15.8 percent support, and the center-left Bernardo Arévalo, who received 11.7 percent support — are scheduled to go up against one another in a runoff on August 20. Arévalo, who is running on an anti-corruption message, was a surprise success, while Torres, who is viewed as more closely aligned with the status quo, was more of an expected victor.

More than 17 percent of ballots were left blank, many in protest, which led to concerns that neither Arévalo nor Torres was the candidate Guatemalans actually wanted. Amid that uncertainty, multiple parties, including Torres’s, challenged the validity of the results and alleged possible irregularities. In response, the court paused the approval of the results and ordered a review that will examine if local polling counts align with those that were reported to the federal system.

It’s a maneuver the court has never used before at this stage of an election, and it’s one that many political observers view as discounting the will of the people. The votes have all been tallied, and the Court was expected to fulfill its largely symbolic, legally mandated role in the proceedings, especially because, as experts told Vox, there hasn’t been much evidence of election fraud.

Because of the court’s decision, local polling branches have five days to review their ballot tallies following the Saturday decision. It seems unlikely there will be any change in outcome, though the review could prompt a recount if sufficient discrepancies are discovered. Multiple experts told Vox that part of the campaign to have the court take a second look at the results could be centered on questioning Arévalo’s support, since he has promised change that could affect entrenched political and business interests.

The court’s maneuver has drawn pushback domestically and abroad, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken noting that the US is “deeply concerned by efforts that interfere with the June 25 election result.”

“The court’s move to suspend the certification of election results in Guatemala is a major, major threat to the country’s democracy,” adds Rachel Nolan, a Boston University international relations professor who has studied Central America. “There is no precedent for this kind of intervention.”

The court decision adds to concerns about Guatemala’s democratic process

The Constitutional Court’s decision is just the latest development in an already-tumultuous few years for Guatemala.

As Vox’s Ellen Ioanes explained, dissatisfaction with the political situation in Guatemala has been fomenting for some time amid concerns about corruption and the economy. Additionally, the country has seen 35 former judicial officials and 22 journalists go into exile under the current presidential administration of Alejandro Giammattei due to harassment and threats of prosecution they’ve faced, according to the International Crisis Group.

Then, ahead of the June contests, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court barred multiple anti-establishment candidates from even running in the presidential election. Those banned from competing include popular businessman Carlos Pineda, Indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera, and businessman and political scion Roberto Arzú. Many of these candidates’ supporters felt they’d been taken out of contention by powerful interests worried about losing their influence.

That ban may be why the highest proportion of ballots were actually left blank in the June election.

“Abstention is really the story for a lot of this,” says Tim Smith, an Appalachian State University anthropology professor who has studied Guatemala. “People are choosing to protest the system and purposefully casting a vote they know won’t be reported as valid.”

Experts note that the Constitutional Court’s latest decision was pushed both by Torres and other entities, including some who may not want Arévalo in power because of his focus on ending corruption. Concerns about judicial independence in the country have grown in recent years after a United Nations-backed group dedicated to tackling corruption was eliminated in 2019.

“Corrupt actors–from within government, the private sector, former military, and other sectors—then sought to place their own corrupt allies in key positions within the judicial system,” concluded a 2022 report from the Washington Office on Latin America.

“These efforts to contest the election results are suspicious at least and malicious at worst,” says the Atlantic Council’s María Fernanda Bozmoski. “They are likely motivated by a desire to prevent the second-place finisher, Bernardo Arévalo, from winning the presidency. Arévalo is a political outsider who has promised to root out corruption and impunity in Guatemala.”

For now, it’s still too early to know if the court-mandated review will have any impact on the election’s outcome, or if the runoff in August will simply move forward as originally planned.

There are a couple of scenarios for how things could play out from here, says Bozmoski.

“If the court orders a recount of the votes, it is possible that the results could change,” she says. “However, it is also possible that the court could simply declare the election invalid and order a new election to be held. This would be a major setback for Guatemala’s democracy and would further erode public trust in the electoral process, and could destabilize the region.”

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