Guatemala’s elite may try to avoid the presidential election

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men June Bernardo Arévalo won an unexpected place in the presidential race of Guatemala. It was a glimpse of hope for the troubled Central American country. Mr. Arévalo, the son of Guatemala’s first democratically elected president, is an outsider candidate who ran on an anti-corruption platform. But since then the country’s elite has done its best to block Mr. Arévalo from the second round of the election, which will be held on August 20.

By rights Mr. Arévalo should have the leadership. He is voting 26 percentage points ahead of Sandra Torres, who was previously the first woman to whom he came in second place in the first round. Along with promising to tackle corruption, Mr Arévalo, from the progressive party Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement), promises to reduce poverty and improve health and education for the country’s 17m people.

His popularity reflects a deep desire for change. According to one poll, three quarters of those surveyed believe that the country is going in the wrong direction; a similar percentage believe the government is corrupt. Over the past ten years the country has fallen in the corruption index ranking by Transparency International, which is based in Berlin. NGO (see table).

Guatemalan politics are still scarred by a 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996 but left the state in the hands of what Guatemalans contemptuously refer to as “the pact of corruption”: a network of elites political, military and economic. Their power has grown since 2019, when UNthe anti-corruption body was shut down by the then president. The current administration of President Alejandro Giammattei has further politicized the courts.

Few believe that those in power will allow the second round to run smoothly. After Mr. Arévalos’ surprise appearance in the first round, nine mainstream parties claimed fraud, even though observers had not seen any irregularities. The constitutional court ordered the electoral tribunal to review the number of votes, delaying the confirmation of the results. When this did not change the outcome, officials tried to suspend Semilla for allegedly forging signatures. (The constitutional court stopped the ban, but the challenge continues, as no party can be banned during an election period.)

Attempts to use the legal system to shape the outcome of the election are part of a pattern. Before the campaign started this year the electoral tribunal banned – for unknown reasons – three increasingly popular anti-establishment presidential candidates.

Some fear that the elite will try to manipulate the results by using tactics such as vote suppression in Semilla-friendly urban areas. Others predict that he will try to stop Mr. Arévalo from taking power in January if he wins, perhaps using legal anger similar to the one in the first round. Recently, a video appeared showing an official from Ms. Torres’ party telling local officials to be ready to contest the results (Ms. Torres denies wrongdoing). This risks sparking protests and international criticism.

A lot can depend on external pressure. Marielos Chang from the University of Valle de Guatemala believes that the elite was not able to exclude Mr. Arévalo from the second round because both Guatemalans and the international community reacted so strongly. Antony Blinken, the US The secretary of state, and Luis Almagro, head of the Group of American States, a regional group, condemned any efforts to prevent the results. On July 23, in a review of corruption in the sector, the US The State Department banned ten more Guatemalans from entering the United States.

Even if Mr. Arévalo wins and is sworn in, life may be very difficult for him. Semilla could still be suspended as a party, leaving his 23 lawmakers without a leader. Institutions could refuse to cooperate with Mr. Arévalo and block his agenda; People will be unhappy with the lack of results from a candidate who promised to change. What lies ahead is an uphill battle, says Ms Chang. But the reward could be a justification. His victory would ensure “a few more years of life for democracy”, she says.

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