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Facing Electoral Defeat, Guatemala’s Ruling Elites Undermine Nation’s Democracy

Efforts to undermine the president-elect are taking a toll on his party and on Guatemalans standing up for democracy.

Guatemalans take part in an August 25 protest in Guatemala City to call for the attorney general's resignation due to election interference.

Election authorities have certified Bernardo Arévalo as Guatemala’s president-elect, but efforts to destabilize his party and the election outcome persist and they are taking a toll on the population. Still, Guatemalans are speaking out to defend their democracy.

A progressive congressman and sociologist, Arévalo’s victory in the August 20 presidential runoff election was officially certified by the country’s electoral tribunal on August 28. Hours earlier, however, the tribunal’s citizen registry provisionally suspended the legal status of his party, Movimiento Semilla. The losing party, Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), still refuses to concede, and prosecutors and judges already hit with sanctions by the U.S. continue to pursue legal action against Semilla as well as electoral tribunal magistrates and election volunteers.

“It is one thing after another,” said Victoria Tubin, an Indigenous Maya Kaqchikel sociologist. “I think they are using a strategy of repression and destabilization to wear us out.”

Embattled Elections

Movimiento Semilla has roots in mass protests against corruption back in 2015, and combating corruption is a cornerstone of Arévalo’s plans for government. In recent years, Guatemala has effectively been ruled by an informal coalition of parties and interests dubbed the “pact of the corrupt” that has been consolidating control across all three branches of government.

Arévalo’s unexpected advance to the runoff spurred political and judicial backlash, which picked back up after his landslide victory over UNE party contender Sandra Torres, a former first lady. UNE is challenging the election process and results, alleging fraud. Prosecutors are pursuing several cases related to political parties and the elections, including a case against Semilla for alleged irregularities in signatures collected years ago for the party’s registration. Semilla itself came forward in March to report a potentially falsified signature, but in July, after Arévalo made the runoff, prosecutors announced they were investigating 5,000 signatures.

In the days following the runoff election, prosecutors filed motions to strip three electoral tribunal magistrates of the immunity from prosecution their office provides for their initial registration of a candidate with legal impediments, even though they retracted the decision. They also requested more documentation on the election proceedings and actors, including the tens of thousands of volunteers who staffed the polling stations. The electoral tribunal has been complying with the requests without being able to obtain information about the motives of the investigations, tribunal magistrates told reporters on August 31.

Pavel Matute, a veterinarian,
participates in an August 25 protest in Guatemala City to call for the attorney general's resignation due to election interference.
Pavel Matute, a veterinarian, participates in an August 25 protest in Guatemala City to call for the attorney general’s resignation due to election interference.

There are developments nearly every day in the post-election legal battles and the situation is taking a toll on Guatemalans, according to Tubin. “It creates a destructive impact on people’s emotional state,” she told Truthout. “People are very stressed and tired.”

The protagonists of efforts to undermine the election process and results include officials the U.S. has placed on its list of corrupt and undemocratic actors in northern Central America: Maria Consuelo Porras, Guatemala’s attorney general; Rafael Curruchiche, special anti-impunity prosecutor; and Judge Fredy Orellana. Designated under the United States — Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act, they are barred from entering the U.S.

Orellana ordered the suspension of Movimiento Semilla’s legal status as a party back in July in relation to the claims of frauduluent signatures. The electoral tribunal’s citizen registry refused to comply, as the law prohibits the suspension or cancellation of a party during an election process, and a top court sided with the registry. This year’s election process does not legally end until October 31, so although elections are already over no party can be suspended until that date.

The head of the citizen registry, also now facing an investigation and prosecutor’s request to strip his immunity from prosecution, changed course on August 28 and decreed the provisional suspension of Semilla. Two days later, in another highly questionable act, the executive committee governing congress enacted the provisional suspension, converting the handful of sitting Semilla lawmakers and the 23 elected to office next year into independents, which prevents them from presiding over commissions and sitting in the executive committee. Semilla has filed legal actions to challenge the judge’s order, the registry’s suspension and the move by congressional leadership.

Defending Democracy

“We don’t know what could happen,” Pavel Matute, a veterinarian, told Truthout during a protest outside the public prosecutor’s office in Guatemala City. “This is a political war and in a war no one wins.”

The nonstop nature of the post-election turmoil has been overwhelming, but Guatemalans have sporadically taken to the streets in marches and rallies in different parts of the country to protest efforts to undermine the election process and the Semilla party. Traditional Indigenous governance authorities have also announced that if the public prosecutor’s office continues its interference they will convoke mass protests, which would undoubtedly shut down the Pan-American Highway and other key routes.

Drummers kept the energy up at a rally on August 25 outside the public prosecutor’s office in Guatemala City. People strung up protest signs on the tall black metal fence in front of the building, including a long row of banners with the faces and names of judges, prosecutors and journalists — many of them now in exile — who have been prosecuted, jailed or otherwise targeted over the past few years for their work to dismantle powerful networks of corruption and impunity.

Banners depicting former anti-impunity prosecutors and others persecuted for their anti-corruption efforts hang outside the public prosecutor's office during an August 25 protest in Guatemala City
Banners depicting former anti-impunity prosecutors and others persecuted for their anti-corruption efforts hang outside the public prosecutor’s office during an August 25 protest in Guatemala City.

Lucrecia Rodríguez, a retired preschool teacher, took part in the rally along with some of her relatives. “She should resign,” she said of Attorney General Consuelo Porras, articulating protesters’ main demand. Rodríguez is an active member of the Semilla party. Her cousin Francisco Quintana, on the other hand, voted for Arévalo in the runoff but had opted for a different candidate in the first round of voting back in June, taking what he considered to be a pragmatic approach.

“I did not think there were conditions for someone [like Arévalo],” Quintana told Truthout. “I knew what is going on now would happen if someone progressive made it, because of the experience we had since we were kids.”

In 1954, a U.S.-backed military coup put an end to Guatemala’s decade-long “democratic spring” under two democratically elected presidents, the first of whom was Arévalo’s father. The country then descended into a 36-year civil war between leftist guerrillas and the army, leaving an estimated 200,000 people dead, the majority of them Indigenous Maya civilians killed by the army.

Quintana grew up during the armed conflict, under a series of military dictatorships that used extreme violence to quash dissent. He was alarmed but not entirely surprised when reports of two plots, one of which reportedly involved state actors, to attack and assassinate Arévalo were revealed on August 24 in an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights resolution ordering the Guatemalan government to take all necessary measures to protect the president-elect and his running mate, Karin Herrera.

“That type of situation is credible in this country,” he said, pointing to the 1979 assassination of Manuel Colom Argueta, a prominent left-wing politician, as an example.

International Concerns

The post-election turmoil has provoked an outpouring of international concern and condemnation. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres expressed concern over “efforts to undermine the election results by way of legal proceedings” in an August 25 statement. The General Secretariat of the Organization of American States deemed Semilla’s suspension “an abusive interpretation of the law” in an August 28 statement, calling for “the cessation of actions that erode the rule of law.”

U.S. State Department officials have also repeatedly spoken out about the developments. “The United States remains concerned with continued actions by those who seek to undermine Guatemala’s democracy. Such anti-democratic behavior, including efforts by the [public prosecutor’s office] and other actors to suspend the President-elect’s political party and intimidate election authorities, undercuts the clear will of the Guatemalan people,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an August 29 statement.

Guatemalans take part in an August 25 protest in Guatemala City to call for the attorney general's resignation due to election interference.
Guatemalans take part in an August 25 protest in Guatemala City to call for the attorney general’s resignation due to election interference.

The international statements have had little effect, if any. “It is clear that the declarations, the calls to attention, the statements, the tweets etcetera — that does not work anymore. Other kinds of measures are needed,” said Renzo Rosal, a political analyst. Along with stronger forms of international pressure, the stance of Guatemala’s Constitutional Court and citizen mobilization are key, according to Rosal. “That is the triad of actions that are absolutely necessary for us to get back on track as a country,” he told Truthout.

Unless prevented from doing so, Arévalo will take office on January 14, 2024. In a national broadcast on August 29, Guatemala’s current President Alejandro Giammattei announced the first meeting between representatives of the current and upcoming administrations will take place on September 4, promising an orderly transition.

“Of course we have hope,” said Matute. “The incoming government will not be able to change reality in four years. That is impossible. But it can at least lay the foundations so future governments know where to start and set the bar high for future candidates.”

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