Guatemala: Not a normal election

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Twenty-one candidates are vying for Guatemala's presidency – a record number since the return to democracy in 1985. The spectrum of candidates ranges from ultra-conservative to social democrat.

But this is not a normal election. Three of the main candidates were excluded: left-wing indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera; Roberto Arzú, right-wing and anti-establishment; and Carlos Pineda, a populist landowner who, through an effective social media campaign, jumped to the top of the polls by criticising incumbent President Alejandro Giammattei’s government.

Despite years of various efforts against political corruption – under the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which together with the Prosecutor's Office undertook the most extensive anti-corruption campaign in Guatemala’s history from 2007 to 2019 – candidates for 2023’s elections have faced a seemingly arbitrary process of approvals and rejections by the courts.

Since the termination of CICIG’s mandate in 2019, the so-called Pacto de Corruptos – a loose but powerful alliance of politicians, bureaucratic elites, and businessmen – has successfully pushed to recapture counterweight institutions, including the Prosecutor’s Office, and has forced independent and critical voices into exile. As a result, the rule of law has been undermined and there are no longer avenues for appeal for those dissenting from the regime.

Ahead of 25 June’s first-round election, the two candidates who now appear most likely to advance to the second and final round on August 20 are Sandra Torres and Edmond Mulet. Zury Ríos appeared as the favourite until April this year, but has apparently fallen out of favour with voters.

Torres, wife of former president Álvaro Colom (2008-12) and an activist for social assistance programmes, is running for the third consecutive time. In 2019, she was jailed on charges of illicit financing during her 2015 campaign. One by one, however, courts ruled in her favour: she was moved to house arrest, then received permission for an electoral campaign, until the case was finally dropped.

Mulet, whose participation has at times been on a tightrope, is a conservative but institutional politician. His boldest move so far was to declare that, if he won, he would remove prosecutor Porras, sanctioned as a "corrupt agent" by the Biden administration. This may attract moderate voters for him, but it has also unsettled the Pacto de Corruptos. He made the announcement after the ballot was printed.

Meanwhile, this is Ríos’ fourth attempt. In 2011 she was a pre-candidate for the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco, founded by her father, autocrat general Efraín Ríos Montt. In 2015 she ran for Visión con Valores, but a constitutional clause prohibited her campaign as a relative of a coup leader. In 2019 she ran for the Valor party and came in fifth place. On all those occasions, before or after the campaigns, the Constitutional Court ruled that her candidacy was illegal. In this year’s elections, however, this prior jurisprudence was ignored.

For its part, the incumbent Vamos party has focused its electoral efforts on recruiting two hundred mayors to nurture the vote for its presidential candidate, and to gather deputies in the next Congress by financing at least six satellite parties. The government considers that its candidate – Manuel Conde, who remains far behind in polling – will go to the second round.

All this, and the role of the Electoral Commission (TSE, by its Spanish acronym), creates a breeding ground for ungovernability. In recent weeks the Pacto de Corruptos has been fracturing. Ríos and her sponsors have begun to openly accuse the ruling party of cheating.

The electoral process itself is also vulnerable. Computer equipment acquired by the TSE is of dubious origin, and local administrators have a poor reputation. Without clear justification, the magistrates replaced almost 90% of local entities responsible for validating results. In their place, government officials, candidates' lawyers, legal representatives, and State contractors, many of whom have clear conflicts of interest, have been installed.

As if that were not enough, locally, tempers are beginning to flare and the courts are making last minute decisions, only adding to uncertainty.

Dr Édgar Gutiérrez

Dr Édgar Gutiérrez is a political analyst and former Foreign Minister of Guatemala.

This blog post was edited by Freddy Nevison-Andrews.

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