Release peace: the magazine
Release peace: the magazine
Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs
Political and Other Ruptures in Central America
Written by: Inés M. Pousadela
Inés M. Pousadela is a CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, Co-Director and Writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report. CIVICUS is the world’s biggest alliance of civil society organisations and activists, with over 12,000 members in 175 countries. Any opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Release Peace.
The powerful Volcán de Fuego erupted just before the year 2023 commenced. Another eruption followed in May. Perhaps these natural spectacles foreshadowed the political ruptures that were to come for Guatemala. On 20 August 2023, the country stood at a dramatic crossroads: would Guatemala’s democracy prevail or fail? Voters had their say in presidential elections – and they expressed that their country needed a dramatic change of course.
Bernardo Arévalo, leader of the progressive Movimiento Semilla (in English: Seed Movement) became president-elect on 20 August after winning the presidential runoff vote. As soon as early results were announced people poured onto the streets and celebrated all night. It was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence: politics bringing joy rather than despair to the citizens of Guatemala.
A progressive academic and a member of Congress since 2020, Arévalo’s political journey began in widespread anti-corruption protests in 2015. He promised to bring back the numerous justice officials currently in exile and resume the fight against corruption that was ended by his predecessors.
Celebrating too Early?
Arévalo could not address the crowds celebrating on election night in the capital’s Obelisco Square. Death threats had come in ever since first-round results were announced and an assassination plot involving state and non-state forces came to light just days before the runoff. On 24 August, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures to Arévalo and vice-president-elect Karin Herrera, giving the state 15 days to report back on the adoption of additional measures to enhance their protection.
It was not the first time Arévalo and Guatemalan democracy faced challenges. The first election round on 25 June 2023 was preceded by a deterioration of civic space, with those denouncing corruption, collusion, illegal private sector practices and human rights abuses subjected to defamation campaigns, state surveillance, harassment and criminalisation by government authorities.
The choice of candidates was limited by the disqualification of several contenders, including Indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera and her running mate, former Human Rights Ombudsman Jordán Rodas Andrade, as well as the candidate who had led in the polls, conservative business leader Carlos Pineda Sosa, presumably because he was not regarded as a pliable member of the political establishment.
But no one saw Arévalo coming: in a highly fragmented first round of voting, his 12 per cent put him in the runoff. The frontrunner, with 16 per cent, was a political insider, former first lady Sandra Torres of the Unión Nacional de la Esperanza (National Unity of Hope, UNE).
The Establishment Fights Back
The Attorney General, an official under US sanctions for corruption, spearheaded an onslaught of judicial harassment against Arévalo and Herrera. She launched an investigation of Semilla for alleged irregularities in its registration process and had the party’s offices raided. In the process of persecuting Semilla, she twice ordered raids of the electoral commission (TSE) as well. And just as the TSE announced Torres and Arévalo as competitors in the runoff, she ordered Semilla’s suspension. Fortunately the Constitutional Court blocked this order and the runoff was eventually allowed to proceed unimpeded.
Nine parties, including UNE, submitted complaints about supposed irregularities that had gone undetected by all international observers, demanding a recount. Their supporters converged outside the TSE calling for a rerun. Many denounced this as an attempted “electoral coup”. The Constitutional Court eventually ordered the recount and instructed the TSE to suspend official certification of results until complaints were resolved. Following the recount, the TSE eventually endorsed the results two weeks later, on 12 July.
The European Union and the Organization of American States (OAS) took a strong stand. Days before the runoff, the OAS Electoral Observation Mission insisted it had found no discrepancy between the official results and the voting patterns observed on the ground, highlighted that legal instruments were being abused by those dissatisfied with the results and warned that this “extreme judicialization” of the electoral process put democracy at risk.
Citizens Defend Democracy
But the starring role was played by citizens who spent several weeks on the alert, aware that were they to lower their guard, Arévalo would be kicked out so the ruling party’s candidate, who had placed third, could make it into the runoff instead. Large-scale peaceful demonstrations were repeatedly held in Guatemala City and departmental capitals, overwhelmingly led by young people. They were vocally nonpartisan, making clear that they were marching not for Arévalo or Semilla, but for the right of people to make a choice, and therefore for the future of democracy in Guatemala to prevail.
A poll published in early August showed a shift in public opinion: 76 per cent of respondents said they believed the country was on the wrong track, and 73 per cent said they believed democracy was under threat. Seventy-seven per cent had a favourable opinion of Arévalo and 67 per cent disagreed with any cancellation of Semilla’s registration.
It is Not Over Yet
Ultimately, Arévalo received 58 per cent of the vote in the runoff, a clear victory compared to the 37.2 per cent that went to Torres. But ahead of Inauguration Day on 14 January 2024, efforts still continue to overturn the result by those who refuse to accept it, and security threats remain. Even when eventually in office, Arévalo will face a tough time fulfilling his promises, not least because the June election produced a highly fragmented Congress. Sixteen parties will be represented, with Semilla holding only 23 out of 160 seats.
But for now, many Guatemalans are counting the days to the inauguration of their new president and putting hope before fear, ready to take to the streets to give democracy a chance.