Guatemala’s democracy is under assault. Over the past four years, a group of powerful elites tied to organized crime, known as the “pact of the corrupt,” has been steadily dismantling Guatemala’s democratic guardrails by co-opting judicial institutions and arresting and exiling prosecutors, judges, journalists and pro-democracy activists. Now, in their next step to consolidate power, they are trying to manipulate the national elections that are underway.
In anticipation of the 2023 elections, President Alejandro Giammattei packed the courts and the electoral tribunal with loyalists. The ruling regime and its allies then enlisted these entities to distort the Constitution and tamper with election procedures to tilt the political playing field in their favor. The judicial sector delivered — overruling a constitutional ban to permit the daughter of a former dictator to run, certifying the candidacies of regime allies charged and convicted of crimes and disqualifying rivals based on manufactured charges of malfeasance.
That’s why not even the most seasoned observers of Guatemalan politics could have predicted that Bernardo Arévalo, a moderate reformist championing an anti-corruption platform and polling at just 3 percent before the vote, would be one of the two top finishers in the June 25 general elections, securing 12 percent of the vote and a spot in the runoff next month. His rival, Sandra Torres of the National Unity of Hope party, who garnered nearly 16 percent of the vote, is a former first lady and three-time presidential contender and is aligned with the “pact of the corrupt.” In 2019, she was indicted on a charge of illicit campaign financing, and her party has been linked to organized crime.
On July 1, the Constitutional Court ordered electoral authorities’ ballots from the first-round presidential election to be reviewed after Ms. Torres’s party and allies challenged the results — even though other candidates have already conceded and international and domestic observer missions deemed the elections clean. Many fear the ruling could pave the way for additional spurious challenges that could eventually overturn the results, delay the second round or exclude Mr. Arévalo from competing altogether. The cries of fraud echo those in the United States after President Biden’s 2020 victory, although, with the entire judicial system on their side, Guatemala’s election deniers stand a better chance of pulling it off.
The situation has fueled political uncertainty, but Guatemalans have shown that they aren’t willing to let their democracy die without a fight. Though the country’s autocrats have now deployed the full force of the state to steal the elections, they are not the only people mobilizing. Ordinary citizens are raising their voices in defense of their sacred right to vote. If they triumph, they will have shown that it is possible to resist rising authoritarianism. This could be Guatemalans’ moment — and one that reverberates in other parts of the world where democracy is under threat.
Mr. Arévalo, a former diplomat, sociologist and current representative in the national legislature, emerged from the middle of the crowded presidential field. He beat the next closest challenger, Mr. Giammattei’s Vamos party candidate, by over 200,000 votes. Mr. Arévalo is a member of the centrist Movimiento Semilla, or “seed movement,” party, which skews young and is made up largely of university students, professors, engineers and small-business owners.
Though relatively unknown, he is also the son of the beloved former president Juan José Arévalo, who in the 1940s initiated Guatemala’s decade of reformist government known as the Democratic Spring. A 1954 C.I.A.-backed coup abruptly ended that experiment and ushered in four decades of war and repressive dictatorial rule.
Given his father’s political legacy, Mr. Arévalo’s and Semilla’s surge of popularity at this moment, while surprising, is fitting. The party formed in the wake of corruption scandals that convulsed Guatemala in 2015. As a movement, it channeled popular discontent, seeking to build a broad consensus among those disillusioned with predatory politicians and desperate for a different political future. After transitioning to a political party in 2018, Semilla has remained true to its mission, aiming to combat impunity and strengthen democracy.
Last month, it proved to be a welcome alternative for frustrated voters. Though the ruling party tried to sideline outsider candidates and preserve the political status quo, its anti-democratic maneuvering backfired. Many expected abstention rates to be higher than usual, but in the end 60 percent of Guatemalans turned out to vote. Nearly a quarter of those who voted cast a blank or voided ballot to register their anger at what they perceived as a rigged system. This, combined with those who chose to vote for the last reformist candidate standing, propelled Mr. Arévalo into the runoff round.
Semilla’s success and the subsequent backlash have galvanized a citizen-led movement that is now working to ensure that the will of the people is heard. These citizens have started a social media campaign, posting the handwritten, precinct-level vote registries challenging claims of fraud. Volunteers are observing the court-mandated auditing of vote tallies. Indigenous organizations have vowed to stage peaceful, countrywide demonstrations if the courts attempts to manipulate the election. Even stalwart members of the historically conservative business community have endorsed the pro-democracy movement, urging respect for the electoral results and demanding that the runoff proceeds on Aug. 20 according to plan.
The international community is rallying behind them. The European Union, the Organization of American States and even the United States, which has been reluctant to publicly clash with the Giammattei government, have affirmed the legitimacy of the results and denounced electoral interference. Fellow democrats in Central America are also rooting for Guatemala’s emergent civic movement, which could provide a blueprint for efforts to resist their own increasingly autocratic leaders.
Guatemala faces profound political hurdles in the weeks ahead. Even if the court declares the results to be valid, Mr. Arévalo will have to consolidate a broad alliance before the runoff that can unite around a shared political project — no easy feat in a country long divided along ethnic, socioeconomic and ideological lines. But it has surmounted these obstacles before. The 2015 anti-corruption protests marshaled a diverse popular movement that toppled a sitting president and vice president. Though the eight years since then have brought steep autocratic regressions, the patience and persistence of opposition leaders laid the foundations for this new democratic moment.
Even if the electoral timetable proceeds according to schedule and Mr. Arévalo is allowed to run, the disinformation campaign to vilify him and stoke fear will only intensify. And if he can pull off a second-round victory, his minority congressional delegation and the entrenched institutional power of the corrupt elite will hinder his efforts to govern effectively.
But the messy work of democratic governance is for another day. For now, the political stakes could not be higher. If the election deniers succeed, Guatemala will have lost the battle for democracy. But if its defenders prevail, democratic backsliding will have been dealt a powerful blow in a country where not long ago, the autocratic momentum seemed irreversible.
Anita Isaacs is a professor of political science at Haverford College. Rachel A. Schwartz is professor of international and area studies at the University of Oklahoma. She is the author of “Undermining the State From Within: The Institutional Legacies of Civil War in Central America.” Álvaro Montenegro is a Guatemalan journalist.
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