Guatemala is bracing for elections this weekend seen as a key test for the rule of law, amid growing concerns over the state of democracy in Central America. Sunday’s vote takes place against a backdrop of smear campaigns, legal manoeuvring and an apparent effort to force the leading candidate out of the race.
Opinion polls show the centre-left anti-corruption candidate Bernardo Arévalo with a double-digit lead over his opponent, Sandra Torres, a former first lady who in 2011 divorced her husband in a failed attempt to dodge a constitutional ban on close relatives of the incumbent running for the office.
After Arévalo’s unexpected success in the first-round vote in June, a judge briefly suspended his party’s legal status and police officers raided the movement’s headquarters in what was seen as a barely concealed effort by the Guatemalan political establishment to foil his campaign.
The crisis prompted widespread protests in Guatemala and international outcry, with the US, European Union and Organization of American States (OAS) all issuing stark warnings against election interference.
“What we are wagering Sunday is the survival of our democracy,” the political analyst Marielos Chang told Reuters. Like nearby El Salvador and Nicaragua, Guatemala has taken an alarming authoritarian turn in recent years, with activists denouncing growing attacks on the media and public officials.
Arévalo has cast himself and his Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement) as the only option to stop corruption and restore the rule of law, offering the hope of a “new democratic spring”.
At his campaign’s closing event on Wednesday night, Arévalo compared his campaign to mass anti-corruption demonstrations in 2015 which prompted the fall of the then government.
“In this square eight years ago we came together behind the desire to remove the corrupt from power. In this same square, that wish came true, and later began to take the form of a seed of change,” he said. “A people who demand their dignity cannot be stopped.”
The vote comes amid a concerted fightback by the country’s political and economic elite (who are widely seen as being self-serving and allied with organized crime) against anti-corruption efforts.
In 2019 the president Jimmy Morales – a former blackface comedian – banished a successful UN-backed anti-graft mission which had secured a string of high-profile prosecutions.
Under his successor, the incumbent Alejandro Giammattei, the attorney general – who has been sanctioned by the US for “obstruction of justice” – turned his sights on those who had led the fight against corruption.
More than two dozen prosecutors and judges have fled into exile to escape bogus charges. In June one of the country’s leading journalists, José Rubén Zamora, was jailed for six years in what was widely seen as a political witch-hunt.
“Over the past eight years, democratic indicators in Guatemala have all worsened, and the country is becoming more authoritarian,” said Briseida Milián, part of the 25A Institute, an organization that was born out of the 2015 demonstrations, and a doctoral student in political science at the San Martín University in Argentina. “And none of that will change with the elections because the electoral process is dogged by illegal decisions made by Guatemala’s [state] institutions.”
Torres, making her third run for president, has cast herself as the experienced continuity candidate, painting her rival as a radical intent on installing totalitarian socialism. Her own political beliefs have been more malleable, as she switched from a more centrist social democracy to become a conservative supporter of “traditional family values”.
During the second round, Torres won new allies among evangelical pastors and political bosses. Arévalo, meanwhile, has won the support of the most successful businessmen in Guatemala: Luis von Ahn, creator of the language-learning platform Duolingo, donated $100,000, the largest contribution to his campaign.
“Torres, especially during the last months, has become the candidate of the political establishment – and that means [a victory for her would bring] the further deterioration of democracy in Guatemala,” said Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez, political science researcher from Harvard University.
During the campaign, Torres supporters have distributed food, T-shirts and even cash to voters. Arévalo and Semilla focused on social media including TikTok, on which the candidate has more than half a million followers.
“The way they have mobilized their supporters says a lot about the two parties’ attitudes towards the value of elections and democratic politics,” said Meléndez-Sánchez.
Even if Arévalo wins more votes, he could still face further attempts to block him from taking office, said Juan Pappier, acting deputy director of the Americas Division at Human Rights Watch.
“What worries me the most is what will happen after 20 August,” he said. “There are many, many corrupt sectors in Guatemala that have shown that they are willing to do anything to prevent Arévalo from being president.”