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With 98 percent of ballots counted at 9 ET on Monday, social-democrat Congressman Bernardo Arévalo of the Semilla (“Seed”) party shocked Guatemala’s political scene by grabbing second place in the presidential election (11.9 percent of the vote) alongside running mate Karin Herrera, a biology professor from the country’s public university.
In an August 20 runoff, he will face former first lady and legislative power broker Sandra Torres, of the National Unity of Hope (UNE) party (15.6 percent), who has studiously avoided criticizing the dismantling of democratic institutions in the country.
“We can now say that it’s a definitive trend,” Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) Magistrate Gabriel Aguilera announced at 3:20 a.m. “It would be most responsible to make the announcement tomorrow [Monday], but the two who are leading are UNE and Semilla.”
Semilla was founded in 2017, in the spirit of the 2015 mass anti-corruption protests that ended with President Otto Pérez Molina and VP Roxana Baldetti’s imprisonment on customs fraud charges. Since its inception, the party has invoked the democratic tradition of the Guatemalan Revolution (1944-1954).
Four years ago, Semilla proposed presidential candidate former Attorney General and CICIG ally Thelma Aldana, controversially removed from the race while leading the polls and currently in exile. The party has since used its six seats in Congress —the most among the country’s handful of left-of-center parties— to condemn corruption and mismanagement during the pandemic.
Arévalo, co-founder of Semilla, served as ambassador to Spain and vice minister of foreign relations in the 1990s. He built his subsequent presidential campaign around nostalgia for the fact that his father, Juan José Arévalo Bermejo, was the democratically elected president (1945-1951) who preceded Jacobo Árbenz. Arévalo (65) was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, during his father’s exile.
In his campaign he promised to revive anti-corruption efforts , argued for decriminalizing marijuana for medical purposes and spoke on Sunday night of an interest in reducing the poverty gap between “the two Guatemalas”. But, weary of conservative tripwires, he declined to support marriage equality or loosening Guatemala’s near-total abortion ban.
“This is a very clear and direct result of the urban vote. Not only in Guatemala City: departmental capitals are increasingly voting very similarly to the capital,” political consultant Ángel Ramírez told Agencia Ocote.
Arévalo edged out polling frontrunners like ex-diplomat Edmond Mulet, ultraconservative Zury Ríos, Manuel Conde, who came in third place with President Giammattei’s party Vamos. In Prensa Libre’s June 21 poll, Arévalo was trailing in eighth place.
WOLA Director for Central America Ana María Méndez called the result “a window of hope”. “Semilla [is] a non-traditional party that has built its base far from the clientelist dynamics and illicit finance that define most [Guatemalan] political parties.”
“In 2015, it was in the public square; in 2023, the ballot box,” she said. “Through the null vote, Guatemalan citizens shouted their rejection of the current political-electoral system that fails to meet the aspirations of a people tired of corruption.”
17.4 percent of voters —around 870,000 Guatemalans— cast null ballots. That percentage is greater than for any individual presidential candidate yesterday. Abstention also reached 40.3 percent, levels close to those of the election that saw Rodrigo Chaves come to power in Costa Rica last year on the coattails of frustrations with political leadership.
Torres, who for months led a disorderly pack of 22 candidates, advanced to her third consecutive presidential runoff. Once a progressive first lady who is still recognized in large swaths of the country for her social policy, in recent years her UNE party’s large number of legislators made her a key ally to the Giammattei government.
That is why she is seen as an accomplice to the democratic decay of the past several years. Torres was indeed arrested after her 2019 campaign for illicit financing of the 2015 race, but the charges were dropped two months before she enrolled this time.
In her campaign, she has pledged to expand poverty relief programs reminiscent of those she implemented during the administration of her ex-husband, the late president Álvaro Colom (2008-2012). This year, to expand her base, she chose as vice president a recently resigned Evangelical pastor.
Arévalo stated that “we [Semilla] don’t have the clientelist machinery that the other party [UNE] has”. It perhaps is true, though, that he is now the primary benefactor of the questionable exclusion of Thelma Cabrera and Carlos Pineda, two frontrunners with varying shades of anti-system rhetoric.
Torres dismissed Arévalo’s bid as that of a newcomer, saying that she would “have no need to improvise” upon taking office.
But relatively speaking, those jabs were all above the belt. In the morning, Torres accused ruling party Vamos of attempting to “buy the vote” and sought to deny —as she has repeatedly during the campaign— that her party legislators were part of the governing congressional coalition. A few hours later, she denounced an anonymous Molotov cocktail that destroyed a car from her brother’s motorcade parked in front of a voting center.
Giammattei’s candidate, Manuel Conde, may not have made the runoff, but his similarly unexpected placement in third made the outgoing president one of the subtle winners of the electoral evening. Moreover, Vamos is leading the congressional race, which for an official accumulating allegations of corruption and suffering from low popularity could be decisive in an effort to secure political leverage and impunity.
“Even if Arévalo were to win the second round, Semilla will unlikely have sufficient strength to pass legislation without having to negotiate with questioned parties,” Central America analyst and former Crisis Group researcher Tiziano Breda observed.
The daughter of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, Zury Ríos, who at the beginning of the year led all polls, slipped to sixth place with under 7 percent. One mid-June study suggested that her name association with President Alejandro Giammattei and the Foundation Against Terrorism —procurer of the exile of dozens of anti-corruption prosecutors and judges and the incarceration of journalist José Rubén Zamora— had harmed her image.
What about the bribes?
The reason for the high abstention can be found in the same June Prensa Libre poll: Just 30 percent of prospective Guatemalan voters believed election day would be clean and transparent— a 19-point drop from 2019. Yesterday, election monitors noted that most voting was carried out peacefully and efficiently but identified five municipalities where various forms of “electoral violence” occurred.
In the municipality of San José del Golfo outside of Guatemala City, the local elections were suspended until the day of the runoff after neighbors caused disturbances in response to the supposed arrival of buses of voters from other districts. Moving voters is a classic example of corruption in municipal races.
But the elephant at the polls on Sunday was a flurry of journalistic reports last week from the New York Times, El Faro, and ConCriterio that the president and his top political operative Miguel Martínez attempted to pay off the TSE magistrates in March 2022 to tip the balance in their party’s favor.
“These reports, if true, constitute a grave attack on the independence of the electoral authority,” Natalia Gámez, spokesperson for the Mission of Electoral Observation in Guatemala, a group of seven civil society organizations monitoring the vote, told El Faro English in a press conference.
“Supreme Electoral Tribunal magistrates have immunity from prosecution [“el derecho al antejuicio”],” added Ricardo Barrientos, of the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI). “We hope, even with the few elements in the press, the Public Prosecutor’s Office would consider the possibility of requesting impeachment proceedings [“solicitud de retiro de antejuicio”] to be able to begin an investigation.”
“Everything reported to the Public Prosecutor’s Office will be investigated,” commented Attorney General Consuelo Porras when asked about the matter in a separate presser.
It’s unclear, however, whether the alleged bribes have been formally reported. According to sources, TSE magistrate Blanca Alfaro distrusted Porras’ independence, leading her to take her complaint to the U.S. Embassy.
This article first appeared in the June 26 edition of the El Faro English newsletter. Subscribe here to tune into Central America.