Guatemala’s democracy is under attack. For the past four years, a group of powerful elites linked to organized crime, known as the “pact of the corrupt”, has continuously dismantled Guatemala’s democratic fence by co-opting judicial institutions and arresting and exile 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 taking place.
In anticipation of the 2023 elections, President Alejandro Giammattei filled the courts and the electoral court with loyalists. The ruling regime and its allies then recruited these entities to distort the Constitution and manipulate election procedures to tilt the political playing field in their favor. The judicial sector delivered – repeal a constitutional ban allow the daughter of a former dictator to run, certifying the applications of regime allies accused and convicted of crimes and disqualifying rivals based on fabricated allegations of wrongdoing.
That is why even the most experienced observers of Guatemalan politics could not have predicted that Bernardo Arévalo, a moderate reformist advocating an anti-corruption platform and voting correctly. 3 percent before the vote, would be one of the two top finishers in the June 25 general election, securing 12 percent of the vote and a place in next month’s runoff. His rival, Sandra Torres of the National Unity of Hope party, which won almost 16 percent of the votes, is a former first lady and three-time presidential contender and is aligned with the “pact of corruption”. In 2019, she was indicted on a charge of illegal campaign financingand her party was linked to organized crime.
On July 1, the Constitutional Court ordered Electoral authority ballots from the first-round presidential election will be reviewed after Ms Torres’s party and allies challenged the results – although other candidates have already done so admitted and international and domestic observation missions deemed the elections clean. Many fear the ruling could pave the way for further false challenges that could eventually overturn the results, delay the second round or bar Mr. Arévalo from competing altogether. The cries of fraud echo those in the United States after President Biden’s victory in 2020, although, with the entire judicial system on their side, Guatemala’s election deniers have a better chance of pulling it off.
The situation has fueled political uncertainty, but Guatemalans have shown that they are not willing to let their democracy die without a fight. Although 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 win, they will show that it is possible to resist rising authoritarianism. This could be Guatemalans’ moment — and one that resonates in other parts of the world where democracy is under threat.
Mr. Arévalo, former diplomat, sociologist and current representative in the national legislature, emerged from the middle of the crowded presidential field. He defeated the next closest challenger, Mr. Giammattei’s Vamos party candidate, by more than 200,000 votes. Mr. Arévalo is a member of the centrist Movimiento Semilla, or “seed movement”, partywhich skews young and consists mostly of university students, professors, engineers and small-business owners.
Although relatively unknown, he is also the son of the beloved former president Juan José Arévalo, who in the 1940s initiated the decade of Guatemala’s reformist government known as the Democratic Spring. A CIA-backed coup in 1954 abruptly ended that experiment and ushered in four decades of war and oppressive dictatorial rule.
Considering the political legacy of his father, the popularity of Mr. Arévalo and Semilla at this time, although surprising, is appropriate. The party was 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 remained true to his mission, aiming to fight impunity and strengthen democracy.
Last month, it proved to be a welcome alternative for frustrated voters. Although the ruling party tried to sideline outside candidates and maintain the political status quo, its anti-democratic maneuver backfired. Many expected abstention rates to be higher than usual, but in the end 60 percent of Guatemalans turned out to vote. Almost a quarter of those who voted cast a blank or canceled ballot to register their anger at what they perceived as an imposed system. This, combined with those who chose to vote for the last reformist candidate standing, pushed Mr. Arévalo into the drain circle.
Semilla’s success and the subsequent backlash galvanized a citizen-led movement that is now working to ensure that the will of the people is heard. These citizens started a social media campaign, posting the handwritten, precinct voting records challenge claims of fraud. Volunteers observe the court-mandated review of election tallies. Indigenous organizations have vowed to stage peaceful, nationwide demonstrations if the courts try to manipulate the election. Even loyal members of the historically conservative business community supported the pro-democracy movement, urging respect for the election results and demanding that the runoff continue on August 20 as planned.
The international community is rallying behind them. The European Union, the Organization of American States and even the United States, which is reluctant to publicly clash with Giammattei’s government, have affirmed the legitimacy of the results and denounced election interference. Fellow democrats in Central America are too rooting for Guatemala’s emerging citizen movement, which could provide a blueprint for efforts to resist its own increasingly autocratic leaders.
Guatemala faces profound political obstacles in the coming weeks. Even if the court declares the results valid, Mr. Arévalo will have to consolidate a broad alliance before the runoff that can unite around a common political project — no easy feat in a country long divided along ethnic, socioeconomic and ideological lines. But it has overcome these obstacles before. The anti-corruption protests in 2015 brought together a diverse popular movement that overthrew a sitting president and vice president. Although 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 voting schedule continues as scheduled and Mr. Arévalo is allowed to run, the uninformed campaign to vilify him and instill fear will only intensify. And if he can pull off a second-round win, 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. These days, the political stakes couldn’t be higher. If the election denialists succeed, Guatemala will have lost the fight 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 a 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.