MS Risk Blog

Guatemala: Voter’s fatigue and security perspective

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Voters went to the polls on 25 June for the first round of the presidential election, organised every 4 years. The second and final round, scheduled for 20 August, will determine the next President of the Republic after Alejandro Giammattei. These elections took place in a climate of mistrust or disinterest among voters, frustrated by the corruption of the elites, insecurity, social inequalities, and the inability of politicians to act. Several candidates were denied the right to stand on sometimes spurious legal pretexts, tainting the democratic conduct of the country’s most important elections. Nevertheless, the surprise second-place finish of left-wing candidate Bernardo Arévalo, against all the odds, could revive interest in the elections. However, it is difficult to say how likely it is that he would be elected, given the surprise result. What’s more, among the candidates who were allowed to run, several made the fight for security a leading argument, referring to El Salvador and the state of emergency declared more than a year ago by President Nayib Bukele. This hardening of tone is likely the sign of a future shift towards a more security-oriented society.

On 25 June, Guatemala, the Central America’s largest economy with a GDP of 86 billion dollars in 2020 and the region’s most populous country with almost 17.8 million inhabitants, held the first round of presidential elections in a climate of voter mistrust over institutions and politicians. This context is explained by a highly unequal society, with 60% of the population living below the poverty line and 56% affected by food insecurity, the numerous cases of corruption among the elite and a shift in power towards greater authoritarianism.

Several candidates were refused the right to stand for election. The most notable are left-wing indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera and Jordán Rodas, and Carlos Pineda, centre-right-wing candidates. Thelma Cabrera and Jordán Rodas, of the Popular Liberation Movement (MLP), had been excluded from the lists for the elections on 25 March for procedural irregularities. This news worried some observers and led to demonstrations. Centre-right candidate Carlos Pineda, of the Citizen Prosperity party and Guatemala’s leading presidential candidate with 23% of voting intentions, was disqualified on 26 May, just a month before the first round of the election. This decision came when a few days earlier, on 23 May, the Guatemalan Electoral Observation Mission (MOE-GT), in charge with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to monitor the democratic conduct of the elections, expressed its concern about the fraud and irregularities underway during the presidential election, including the fact that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) is alleged to have made numerous errors during the process of accepting or rejecting candidates. One third of the country’s 9 million voters are not registered to vote and the results of the first round quickly gave way to a number of demonstrations and scuffles with the police, although no major damage was caused. The only surprise was that a left-wing candidate, Bernardo Arévalo, member of the Movimiento Semilla, who obtained 12% of the vote, whereas some polls had predicted 3%, just behind former First Lady Sandra Torres, member of the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), who obtained almost 16% of the vote. However, the no-vote came in first with around 17%, indicating voter fatigue.

Sandra Torres, who is leading the polls and is the centre-left favourite, could seek to attract the votes of right-wing conservatives against her left-wing opponent, by toughening her security proposals and taking as a model the President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, who in March 2022 introduced a particularly strict and repressive state of emergency, the aim of which was to put an end to the influence of gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18, endemic not only to the country but also to Central America in general. These repressive measures in El Salvador have been met with a favourable response in neighbouring Guatemala, and it is likely that security policy will be tightened after the elections.

Although the presidential elections in Guatemala in June did not go smoothly due to irregularities and the exclusion of candidates, Bernardo Arévalo was a surprise candidate in the second round. His candidacy may well be an opportunity to rekindle the interest of some voters in the elections. What is certain, however, is that the many promises and election speeches made by candidates referring to the state of emergency in El Salvador are likely to be fulfilled afterwards.