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June 2023 Election Poses Critical Test for Guatemalan Democracy

Guatemala, in Brief: Dozens of mostly conservative candidates are expected to compete in the June general election as divided elites seek control of a state emptied of its anti-corruption judges and prosecutors. Election lawfare to block candidacies could tip the scales, as it did in 2019. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal has already shown glimpses of partiality.

RODRIGO ARANGUA

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Roman Gressier

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If the words that best embody the last two years in Guatemala are corruption, judicial persecution, and impunity, then there is reason to worry about the integrity of the presidential election set for June 25. Eleven presidential tickets have already announced their bids and over 30 parties are expected to participate, but there are serious questions about election arbiters’ interest in monitoring the contest fairly.

Only a handful of candidates, most of them backed by traditional elites, have a real chance of making headway. While there is much speculation about the frontrunner, the contender generating the most buzz is Zury Ríos, the deeply controversial daughter of 1980’s dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. Her party, Valor (meaning both courage and values) has joined forces with the party of Álvaro Arzú, the deceased arch-conservative ex-president from 1996 to 1999 and patriarch of a wealthy criollo family dynasty.

The alliance, political scientist Gabriela Carrera told El Faro English, is “the fusion of the military sector that Zury represents with the economic elites.”

In December, three days before Ríos announced her bid, running mate Héctor Cifuentes was suspiciously cleared of charges of siphoning municipal funds from 2011 to 2015 to prop up Arzú’s capital-city political machine. The CICIG and FECI prosecutors who brought the charges in 2019 have been kicked out of the country or hounded into exile. Current top FECI prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche, sanctioned by the U.S. for corruption, asked for the case to be dropped.

Other top candidates have judicial blemishes of their own. UNE party leader and former first lady Sandra Torres, who came in first place in initial presidential voting in 2019 before losing the runoff to Alejandro Giammattei, was charged that same year for not reporting more than $2 million dollars’ worth of donations in the 2015 race. The case was suddenly dismissed two months ago.

The legal woes may also extend to Torres’ running mate Estuardo Guerra, who preached as an Evangelical pastor as recently as June 2020. Active religious ministers are constitutionally barred from competing for executive office, though he may claim he has stepped down.

Parts of UNE are key allies to President Giammattei in Congress. Election authorities are reportedly investigating the presence of government cars, indicating possible illicit use of state resources, at campaign events of Torres. Some cite the vehicles as evidence of closeness.

The government cars controversy also affects congressman Manuel Conde, Giammattei’s candidate by the president’s party, Vamos. Journalist Juan Luis Font told El Faro English that Conde, a politician of lower profile than Ríos or Torres, is “an important figure in terms of power alliances.” 

“He has played a quite relevant role in constructing the group against CICIG and the Public Prosecutor’s Office,” Font says.

Giammattei’s party, too, faced courtroom accusations of illicit finance until Attorney General Consuelo Porras —sanctioned by the U.S., too— dismantled the prosecutors’ unit that received testimony from a Vamos insider that Giammattei had negotiated $2.6 million in bribes in 2019.

It was revealing that his anointed candidate, Conde, will run alongside Luis Suárez, the dean of economics from the politically influential public San Carlos University (USAC) who helped co-opt the university elections last year. Departments who supported opponent Jordán Rodas, the former human rights ombudsman, were barred from casting votes.

The June elections will offer a rematch for Rodas, who fled in August to avoid the promise of judicial persecution from Giammattei and Porras. He returned to announce in December that he would run for vice president with Mayan Mam leader Thelma Cabrera, figurehead of the campesino movement CODECA and its left-wing political party Movement for the Liberation of Peoples (MLP) who came in fourth in 2019 and is considered the strongest Left candidate.

Contenders will have until March 27 to register. There are currently 8.9 million registered voters (only barely over half the population) who will elect the president by absolute majority and also vote for Congress, municipalities, and Parlacen delegates. The crowded field makes for a high likelihood of a presidential run-off in August.

Who filters who can run?

The Cabrera-Rodas alliance, according to Juan Luis Font, reflects that the MLP is willing to soften their anti-system image. “Until now they have been very closed. Rodas is a public figure with the ability to convene a different segment of the population,” he said, referring to progressives and college students who were two of several motors of anti-corruption mass protests in July 2021.

Progressive observers are afraid that those conducting the lawfare on anti-corruption justice system actors may look to disqualify the duo by scouring Rodas’ record as ombudsman for administrative errors, as they did to exiled former Attorney General Thelma Aldana in 2019. To officially run, every candidate must obtain a certification from the Comptroller’s Office that they have never mismanaged public resources.

The judicial maneuvers also cut in other directions. Constitutional experts say a renewed battle over whether the ban on the children of coup presidents seeking the office should apply to Ríos is almost certain to again reach the Constitutional Court. Ríos was already banned from the 2019 election for that reason.

“Her candidacy hangs from a very thin thread,” a close advisor to Ríos told journalist Claudia Méndez Arriaza.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), a key part of that decision, has already shown some partiality in enforcement against pre-campaigning, permitting not-so-subtle courting of the public by Ríos and Conde but issuing warnings to Cabrera and candidate Edmond Mulet, an ex-U.N. diplomat who came in third in 2019 and whose former Humanist Party has at times voted in Congress with Giammattei’s Vamos.

The next two months should bring an intense dance of low blows and coalition building. The levels of conflict or cohesion among elites will be key. “What’s in play among the groups in the pact of the corrupt [common expression referring to elites’ pact born to expel CICIG from Guatemala] is their positioning in the state,” asserted Gabriela Carrera.

“When Congress is reconfigured,” she added, “we’ll see the negotiations and the interests: which factions remain, and who is with who.”

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