MS Risk Blog

Guatemala: Between Political Instability and Hope

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The 2023 presidential elections in Guatemala took place in a climate of mistrust of the elites due to numerous irregularities and several convincing cases of corruption, prompting voters to turn to a left-wing candidate with a progressive, anti-corruption programme: Bernardo Arévalo. Nevertheless, this victory did not instantly put an end to the corruption of the elites and certain state bodies, and the new president, who is due to take office on 14 January 2024, will undoubtedly face internal pressure and attempts to neutralise him. It is highly likely that Arévalo will have serious problems governing properly. His less security-conscious agenda than that of his opponent Sandra Torres also makes it unlikely that a strict state of emergency, such as that in Nicaragua, will be introduced during his term of office.

On 20 August, voters in Central America’s largest country went to the polls to elect the successor to Alejandro Giammattei, of the conservative Vamos party, who has been in power since 14 January 2020. Giammattei won the run-off election against Sandra Torres of the National Unity of Hope (UNE) party with 57.96% of the vote on 11 August 2019. The 2023 elections were no better for the former First Lady, as she lost to Bernardo Arévalo of the progressive Semilla party. Many predicted her victory, especially as the most popular candidate, Carlos Pineda, a member of Citizen Prosperity, who was expected to win 23% of the vote in the first round – compared with 20% for Sandra Torres – was disqualified on 26 May by the Constitutional Court on the grounds that he had not complied with electoral laws. Arévalo was given just 3% of the vote in the first round, but gradually gained votes by campaigning against corruption and for the underprivileged, reaching 12% in the first round.

The elimination of Carlos Pineda, along with others, was just one of the cases that led observers to believe that there had been irregularities in the presidential campaign, and they feared for the proper democratic conduct of the country’s most important elections. According to the World Bank (WB), Guatemala’s poverty and inequality rates are among the highest in the Latin American and Caribbean region (LAC), driven by the existence of a large and underserved population, mostly rural and Indigenous and employed in the informal sector. Fifty-four percent of the country’s population lives below the poverty line. These two factors probably played in favour of left-wing candidate Semilla, against a backdrop of voter fatigue and disillusionment with their elites. Arévalo was finally elected on 20 August 2023 with 58% of the vote to his opponent’s 37%. He will officially take office in January 2024.

Despite this victory, international observers feared that the results would not be respected by Guatemala’s legal institutions, primarily the US, the EU, the Electoral Observation Mission (EOM) and the Organisation of American States (OAS). They called on Giammattei’s government to ensure that the results were respected, and that security measures were taken for Arévalo and his deputy Karin Herrera, believing that they were both at credible risk to their lives following death threats. Five days after the second round and the victory of the left-wing candidate, the government confirmed the implementation of specific security measures to avoid any incidents.

On 26 August, Torres decided to contest the election results, arguing that inconsistencies, data variations and a number of contradictions in the vote counts had been found. These statements fuelled further suspicion among some voters in an already turbulent election, which risked further damaging the credibility of the transition. Nevertheless, Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal decided to disregard these concerns and definitively validated the results on 29 August. Unfortunately, the judicial authorities also decided to suspend the legal personality of the Semilla party, to which Arévalo and 23 other deputies belong. The left-wing party was accused of having committed alleged irregularities in collecting signatures for its formation, rendering its status illegal. This decision is a source of concern for observers and uncertainty about the country’s governance. It is certain that the next president will have to deal with hostile institutions and corruption among the elites. In other words, the social and economic problems will be compounded by problems of power to implement the policies for which he was elected.

The latest elections have highlighted the state of corruption in the country’s highest authorities, and it is certain that Bernardo Arévalo will have difficulty governing from January 2024. Against this tense and unstable backdrop, it is difficult to say with any certainty how power will be exercised, but it does augur well for improvements in people’s living conditions if the measures promised are implemented. Arévalo has also said that he is open to working with Mexico City and Washington to curb illegal migration to the US, and that structural social, economic and anti-corruption measures could help in this regard. It should be added that during the campaign, in an attempt to win over right-wing voters, Torres promised to implement stricter measures to combat crime, along the lines of those already in place in Nicaragua. The left-wing candidate was more sceptical. Barring a catastrophe, the spectre of a repressive state of emergency is receding and it is likely that the next government will adopt measures that are more social than security oriented.