Guatemala’s presidential election was thrown into turmoil Wednesday night after a top prosecutor proposed to suspend the party of a rising anti-corruption candidate, threatening his bid to participate in a runoff and potentially dealing a severe blow to the country’s already crumbling democracy.
The move could prevent Bernardo Arévalo, a lawmaker who shook up Guatemala’s political class in June with a surprise showing that propelled him in the August 20 runoff, from running against Sandra Torres, a former first lady.
Rafael Curruchiche, the prosecutor who arranged the case to suspend the party, was himself listed among corrupt Central American officials by the United States for obstructing corruption investigations.
The development puts even greater stress on the political system of Guatemala, after the blocking of several main presidential candidates who were seen as threatening to the political and economic establishment, attacks on freedom of the press and the forced exile of dozens of prosecutors and judges focused on curbing corruption
“They are stealing the election in broad daylight, using one of the institutions that are supposed to protect us,” Gustavo Marroquín, history professor and columnist, said on Twitter.
The prosecutor’s move fueled confusion and anger in Guatemala’s capital, where hundreds of people gathered in protest on Wednesday shortly after Mr. Curruchiche’s announcement. The prosecutor took the action as Guatemala’s election authority prepared to officially reject efforts to delay the runoff, allowing the vote to go ahead as planned.
Asked by reporters about the prosecutor’s move against Mr. Arévalo’s party, Irma Elizabeth Palencia, head of the electoral authority, said: “There is definitely something that worries us.”
Brian Nichols, the top State Department official for the Western Hemisphere, said on Twitter that the US government was “deeply concerned” by what he described as Mr. Curruchiche’s “threats to Guatemala’s electoral democracy.” “Institutions must respect the will of voters,” added Mr. Nichols.
Mr. Arévalo’s party may appeal the ruling, setting the stage for a legal battle and possibly sending the matter to Guatemala’s supreme constitutional court.
Mr. Curruchiche said the case against Mr. Arévalo’s party, called Semilla, or Seed, involved claims that it used fraudulent signatures to qualify as a political party. After his office investigated the case, a criminal judge ordered the suspension of Semilla’s registration, which could effectively prohibit the party, and Mr. Arévalo, from competing in the runoff.
Speaking on CNN en Español, Mr. Arévalo said he would continue his candidacy, asserting that under Guatemalan law political parties cannot be suspended during the electoral process (the first voting took place on June 25 and the runoff is set for Aug. . 20.)
“The powerful no longer want the people to freely decide their future, but we will defeat them”, also Mr. Arévalo. said on Twitter on Wednesday night.
Legal experts questioned the move by Mr. Curruchiche, an ally of the outgoing president, Alejandro Giammattei. Edgar Ortiz Romero, a constitutional law expert, said the move was “absolutely illegal” because a criminal judge cannot suspend a party’s registration under Guatemalan election laws.
“This places us in the sad group of countries with advanced authoritarian characteristics in which the legal system is used to attack opponents,” said Mr. Ortiz Romero.
The independent watchdog group Mirador Electoral said in a statement that the suspension “attempts to carry out an electoral coup equivalent to a coup”.