Central America / Politics

Landslide Victory for Arévalo Rattles Political Mafias in Guatemala

Carlos Barrera
Carlos Barrera

Monday, August 21, 2023
Roman Gressier, Gabriel Labrador and José Luis Sanz

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Sociologist and diplomat Bernardo Arévalo de León, of the progressive Semilla Movement party, won the presidency in Guatemala this Sunday, August 20, by a comfortable margin of 21 points over former first lady Sandra Torres, of the National Unity of Hope (UNE). The runoff election became a referendum on the continuation of the system of political corruption that has held power in Guatemala for the past decade. 

“We are a government born of a proposal to frontally fight corruption, and with the support of the people,” said Arévalo after the announcement of preliminary results showed he had obtained 58 percent of votes. “In this historic moment, it was an act of courage for each person to cast their vote.”

If they manage to overcome legal hurdles posed by the Public Prosecutor’s Office and traditional elites in recent weeks to the certification of the results and to Semilla’s legal standing in a clear attempted electoral coup intended to prevent Arévalo from taking office, he and running mate Karin Herrera, a university professor, will be sworn in on January 14. They will be the tenth administration in the democratic era in Guatemala, but just the second to identify as left-of-center.

The constant allegations of fraud made since the end of june by prosecutors and by candidate Sandra Torres had stoked fears of a turbulent election day and of a slow vote count muddled by impugnations. But hardly any conflicts emerged from the 24,427 voting tables stationed around the country. By 8 p.m., just two hours after the polls closed, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) announced a clear trend in favor of Semilla with 95 percent of votes processed. Three hours later, with every vote counted, they issued the final result: In keeping with polls in the days prior to the election, Arévalo obtained 58 percent of the 4.2 million valid votes, whereas Torres obtained 37.2 percent. 

Semilla widened its dominance that it had showed in the 2019 legislative elections in urban and suburban areas, receiving an overwhelming 79.6 percent of votes in Guatemala City. The increase in the vote share from 11 percent in the first round to 46 percent in the runoff, though, has another possible explanation. Null votes, which in the first round reached a staggering 17 percent of all ballots cast in an evident protest of symptoms of corruption in the TSE and in the elimination from the race of three candidates critical of local elites and the government of Alejandro Giammattei, dropped to three percent. Arévalo, boosted by his moderate disposition and catapulted by the attacks against him, gave an outlet to the anger of hundreds of thousands of voters.

At table 1094 in the Club Los Arcos polling center in the upscale Zone 14 of Guatemala City, Semilla doubled the amount of votes cast in favor of the UNE. Photo Carlos Barrera
At table 1094 in the Club Los Arcos polling center in the upscale Zone 14 of Guatemala City, Semilla doubled the amount of votes cast in favor of the UNE. Photo Carlos Barrera

“I decided to vote null in the first round because I saw they were getting rid of candidates, and I didn’t like that,” said a 50-year-old woman in Chinautla, a municipality near the capital, who identified herself as Marta.

Samuel, a 61-year-old electrician, said he made the same decision as her in June because “I had nobody to vote for” among the 22 presidential tickets. In recent weeks he discovered Arévalo and felt indignant over Torres’ unfounded cries of electoral fraud.  But over half of Guatemalans —55 percent— stayed home on Sunday, a near-average level of abstention in the last ten presidential runoffs.

Semilla won the majority of votes in 17 of 22 departments around the country, including an important segment of the vote of Indigenous and campesino communities evident in its winning of Huehuetenango, for example, a traditional UNE fiefdom where Torres’ party and that of Giammattei, Vamos, had carried the day in the first round. Semilla had come in fourth place. This time, Arévalo won 105,000 votes in the department, five thousand more than his opponent. The UNE won five departments in the north of the country.

Arévalo also received a boost at the polls by young people’s vote, which Semilla has cultivated with a curated campaign of uninhibited messaging and an increasing use of social media. He promises to clean up state institutions and usher in a “new democratic springtime,” a reference to the 1944 Guatemalan Revolution and mass protests against corruption in 2015.

But to break the foothold of corrupt political and economic actors in the executive and judicial branches who in the last two years have exiled or imprisoned three-dozen of the country’s best prosecutors, judges, and journalists, the president-elect will need to forge broad coalitions in a polarized, impoverished, and unequal country. His triumph in the first round in June challenged the country’s primary political and economic actors to reposition themselves, and appears to have drawn new contours for possible consensus.

Moments after the TSE announced the election results, Ignacio Lejárraga, president of the powerful business lobby CACIF, told El Faro that the organized private sector is willing to work with the new government: “As long as he maintains the constitutional order and respect for the law, we will be at peace and will walk alongside him,” he said. “Finding minimum common denominators will be important. We believe it important that he bear in mind that free enterprise is the way to achieve development in this country. Based on our conversations with him, he does hold that view.”

Backing of the Results

Arévalo has defeated Sandra Torres, a politician with decades of experience who was first lady from 2008 to 2011 during the government of her ex-husband Álvaro Colom. This is the third consecutive time that Torres loses the presidential runoff after winning the most votes in the first round. Early in her career she identified as a social democrat, but in recent years she began to court support from the most conservative sectors of the country. She spent time in prison on accusations of illicit campaign finance and as secretary general of her party has been a legislative ally to Giammattei in the current Congress. During this campaign, she even lobbed homophobic attacks at Semilla and accused Arévalo of being an anti-Christian leftist radical.

“We have lived through an electoral process marred by polarization, which in the second round has led to the radicalization of some actors,” says Eduardo Núñez, director for Guatemala of the National Democratic Institute. Núñez underscores the importance that the UNE accept defeat, which has yet to occur: “An acceptance of the results would generate a social and political decompression in the country.”

A vote counter in Zone 7 of Guatemala City completes a vote tabulation act by flashlight. Semilla received 128 votes, far greater than the 14 allotted to UNE. Photo José Luis Sanz
A vote counter in Zone 7 of Guatemala City completes a vote tabulation act by flashlight. Semilla received 128 votes, far greater than the 14 allotted to UNE. Photo José Luis Sanz

Last night, Torres’ party issued a statement asserting that it will “take a definitive stance once the results are established with total transparency.” But the rest of local and international actors have unanimously accepted the results.

President Giammattei, perhaps the political actor with the most to lose from an Arévalo victory due to the abundant corruption allegations encircling him, called him on Sunday night to congratulate him before doing so in public, and to propose a “transition process.” Nayib Bukele and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the presidents of El Salvador and Mexico, respectively, also called Arévalo. Honduran President Xiomara Castro issued public congratulations.

In a striking political gesture, opposition vice presidential candidate in El Salvador Celia Medrano, who hopes to face off in the polls with the enormous popularity of Bukele in February of next year, wrote that Arévalo’s victory has the chance to “change many Salvadorans’ notion of what is really possible.”

The governments of the United States, Norway, and Canada, among others, applauded the efficiency of the vote count and acknowledged Arévalo’s victory. “The E.U. congratulates the Guatemalan people for the peaceful carrying out of the presidential elections and for their firm commitment to democracy throughout the entire process,” wrote Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for External Affairs. “I extend my congratulations to the winning presidential candidate Bernardo Arévalo, as well as Karin Herrera.”

“We extend an invitation to the political parties to accept the election results with maturity,” said TSE Magistrate Gabriel Aguilera at their closing press conference on Sunday. “Guatemala demonstrated today that our democracy is being consolidated.” Tribunal President Irma Palencia made an indirect reference to the judicialization of the election process propelled by the Public Prosecutor’s Office and ultraconservative sectors of the country, interference which required that the Organization of American States step in to secure a guarantee that the runoff would be held. “We repeat: Elections are won at the ballot box,” said Palencia.

“Luckily, our expectations that [the result] could have been delayed by impugnations were not born out. There were only an insignificant number of them,” Gustavo Berganza, representative of the Election Observation Mission of Guatemala, told El Faro.

The president of CACIF also supported the results: “I trust in the data transmission system used by the TSE. Through our observation program we have mechanisms to conduct a second test of the results, and I have seen that the data is consistent,” said Lejárraga. Multiple chambers of the organized private sector including the Agricultural Chamber, considered one of the most conservative, have issued statements congratulating the new president-elect and indicating openness to dialogue.

“This is a government that will start out in a difficult position, from the perspective of Congress,” indicated Lejárraga. “They do not have a majority and what they can achieve with [legislative] alliances will not allow them to do much, so they will have to find a way to unite with all of Guatemala to achieve the changes they seek.”

Arévalo and Herrera also made conciliatory statements on Sunday: “I would like to acknowledge my opponent, Sandra Torres. We have different views of politics, but we guarantee her and her electors that their rights as citizens will be promoted and protected without distinction,” said Arévalo.

Hundreds gathered at the entrance of Hotel Las Américas in Zone 14 of Guatemala City to celebrate the Semilla victory. Photo Carlos Barrera
Hundreds gathered at the entrance of Hotel Las Américas in Zone 14 of Guatemala City to celebrate the Semilla victory. Photo Carlos Barrera

The future president of Guatemala is a former consultant for the United Nations and director of the Latin America program of the international organization Interpeace, he speaks five languages including Hebrew, English, French, and Portuguese and has a doctorate in political sociology from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Immediately upon his birth in Uruguay during the exile of his father Juan José Arévalo Bermejo, president of Guatemala from 1945 to 1951, his family registered him with the Guatemalan Embassy. Torres has seized his birth abroad as an attack line; on Sunday, her supporters chanted ‘Uruguayan, Uruguayan!’ during the victory celebration in the streets. Arévalo has published numerous books on citizen security, conflict resolution, and military history.

A co-founder of Semilla, Arévalo has been a member of Congress since 2020 and became secretary general of the party in May 2022, though congressman-elect José Carlos Sanabria, Arévalo’s primary advisor in Congress and in the campaign, asserted to El Faro that Semilla “is the first party in recent Guatemalan history to not have been constructed around one figure.”

Sanabria also insisted that the Arévalo administration is conscious of its limitations with only the third-largest bloc in Congress, facing attacks from Attorney General Consuelo Porras, and in need of striking agreements with sectors with whom they deeply disagree ideologically. “We have a progressive vision for the construction of the state,” he said. “We hope that one of the final accords at the end of our term, for example, will be a tax reform, but at the moment there are no conditions to be able to do that.”

“We will seek consensus and discussion with anyone. Our government will hold the necessary negotiations on different issues with the necessary actors,” Arévalo told El Faro in an interview a week before the election.

Bernardo Arévalo attends a campaign rally in Huehuetenango, 216 kilometers outside the capital. Local leaders assert that this is where the 2015 protests began that led to the collapse of the government of Otto Pérez Molina. Photo Carlos Barrera
Bernardo Arévalo attends a campaign rally in Huehuetenango, 216 kilometers outside the capital. Local leaders assert that this is where the 2015 protests began that led to the collapse of the government of Otto Pérez Molina. Photo Carlos Barrera

Silvio Gramajo, professor of political communications at Landívar University, is optimistic: “The possibility to make a historic change in the functioning of the executive branch could pave the way later for a state that is more open and more democratic, where rights are respected.”

Various prosecutors and judges in exile responded with excitement to Arévalo’s victory. Former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz tweeted a verse of the Popol-Vuh, the Mayan creation story: “And thus were defeated the Lords of Xibalbá [the underworld], when they saw so many flowers together.” From Washington another former attorney general, Thelma Aldana, posted a video alongside other exiled prosecutors and judges celebrating the result and waving Guatemalan flags.”

Alejandra Gutiérrez Valdizán, director of independent outlet Agencia Ocote, believes that Arévalo’s election “is an important dose of oxygen” in terms of freedom of the press and respect for government critics. “This opens up a rift, allowing for the possibility for all that has been happening at a breakneck pace to be rolled back.” But she says there are limits: “[Arévalo] has promised a return from exile but has no control over the judicial system. And what will happen to [incarcerated journalist José Rubén] Zamora? This will not all of the sudden become a paradise where everyone can return from one day to the next, because the persecution from the Public Prosecutor’s Office will continue.”

The Crisis Remains 

Few doubts remain, even if Arévalo overcomes possible efforts by prosecutors to prevent his swearing-in, that there is a real threat of cancellation of Semilla’s legal standing in a spurious process, leaving the party’s 23 elected legislators without a bloc in Congress, already a minority in a chamber of 160 people.

On Thursday the Public Prosecutor’s Office announced that it had expanded its investigation of Semilla that it had announced after the first round of voting, on charges of supposed falsification of signatures in the party’s registration process six years ago. But it was on these accusations that a criminal court judge, now sanctioned by the United States for doing so, ordered the suspension of the party on July 12. While the TSE and high courts defended the party’s right to not be suspended with an election underway, this immunity will expire on October 31, when the electoral process formally concludes.

For now, it is expected that prosecutors will continue to investigate Semilla and harass its leaders. “We do not rule out raids, arrest warrants, or impeachment requests after August 20,” said prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche, a close ally of Attorney General Consuelo Porras, on Thursday.

Arévalo responded on Sunday night to those threats: “We know that there is political persecution afoot, through the prosecutors and institutions that have been co-opted by corruption. We would like to think that the forcefulness of this [election] victory will make evident that the efforts to derail the electoral process will not work.”

Justo Pérez, his campaign chief, told El Faro that they expect new legal attacks: “The results [of the elections] will be judicialized.”

“These are political battles with legal instruments,” indicated Ricardo Barrientos, director of the Central American Institute of Fiscal Studies, in the morning on election day. He believes, given Arévalo’s wide margin of victory and the local and international acceptance of the results, that “there will be less support for the use of those tools.”

Núñez, of the National Democratic Institute, expressed less optimism: “There are still more doubts today about how the Constitutional Court will act. They may say, ‘Go ahead with the cancellation of Semilla, but don’t touch Arévalo.’”

After the opening of the polls on Sunday, Guatemalan electoral magistrate Blanca Alfaro announced that she is considering resigning following anonymous threats. Photo Carlos Barrera
After the opening of the polls on Sunday, Guatemalan electoral magistrate Blanca Alfaro announced that she is considering resigning following anonymous threats. Photo Carlos Barrera

Right now in Guatemala, every political actor appears to be facing some type of threat or coercion. The morning of the election, magistrate Blanca Alfaro announced that she is considering retiring on Tuesday following threats against her and her family. In 2022 Alfaro told the U.S. Embassy that President Giammattei paid bribes to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal magistrates, including to her.

“The minister of governance called me yesterday and, in a way, offered me security. These threats started three months ago. They always say the same thing: that I was going to prison.”

Sandra Torres insisted on Sunday on demanding “objectivity, impartiality, and equal conditions” from the same Tribunal, criticizing the electronic transmission system of preliminary results known as the TREP. The Tribunal defends the mechanism, recalling that election results are validated not based on the preliminary reporting, but on a manual revision of the physical vote tallies in the polling centers. “All that TREP does is give us a trend,” TSE spokesperson David de León told El Faro on Sunday. “It is preliminary data, not official.”

At the end of July, a cyberharassment account tied to Guatemalan far-right military groups announced that the Public Prosecutor’s Office was searching for vote counters, who enter the vote tallies into the preliminary data reporting system, with supposed affiliations to Semilla. Of this request from prosecutors, De León added: “We were able to verify that none of the counters was part of either of the two political organizations [parties in the runoff].”

“If he doesn’t listen to us, we’ll take to the street”

The TSE kicked off election day in Guatemala City with marimba music and a meet-and-greet of friendly back-patting, contrasting starkly with its public image crisis kindled by reports of bribes and Alfaro’s denunciation of threats.

Karin Herrera condemned the treats: “It is very regrettable. Nobody should have to go through that in a democracy,” she said in the morning as she pushed her way through a press scrum alongside Arévalo on their way to cast their vote.

That Arévalo’s party managed to station party fiscales, or vote count monitors, at most of the over 24,000 polling tables speaks to the growing influence of a party that, just two months ago, had not planned to participate in the runoff. In the first round they had no more than 400 of their own fiscales and obtained another 200 in an alliance with fellow opposition parties Winaq and URNG. But by Sunday, they had multiplied the number of their fiscales to 19,000.

It was due to this expanded influence that the party was able to denounce suspicious actions at a national level by people calling on voters to cast ballots in favor of UNE or handing out food, supposedly in the name of Semilla. According to Semilla attorney and congresswoman-elect Andrea Reyes, these reports led to three arrests.

Sebastián, a fiscal for Semilla in Zona 14 of Guatemala City, recounted that he had decided to volunteer after seeing a call from the party on social media. On June 25, he was on the verge of voting for Edmond Mulet, but at the last minute checked Arévalo and Herrera’s box “to be coherent.” “The only reason to support Mulet was to cut off the path of Zury Ríos [daughter of dictator Efraín Ríos Montt] to the runoff,” he explained. Minutes after the polls closed at his voting site, the trend became clear: for every vote cast for UNE there were three for Semilla.

A few blocks away, Semilla campaign leaders had already convened on an upper floor of the Las Américas Hotel. A sensation of celebration was in the air. The hotel’s security cameras captured the images of the party privately celebrating, out of reach of some 50 journalists who had crowded into one of the salons on the first floor. On the security cameras Arévalo could be seen in a circle with his people, all standing, as well as the moment when they started taking pictures with hotel staff. Below, reporters only heard shouts of joy: “Yes, we did!” “Long live Arévalo!” “Long live Karin!” “Long live Guatemala!”

Hundreds gathered in Zone 14 in Guatemala City to celebrate the Semilla victory on Sunday, August 20, 2023. Some party legislators celebrated in the throngs. Photo Carlos Barrera
Hundreds gathered in Zone 14 in Guatemala City to celebrate the Semilla victory on Sunday, August 20, 2023. Some party legislators celebrated in the throngs. Photo Carlos Barrera

By 8 at night, when the party’s triumph was inevitable, many journalists could hardly bite back their joy. Some embraced while others let out a few tears of emotion. People arrived with horns and Guatemalan flags, honked their cars, and shouted in celebration. Reforma Avenue became a dance floor among cars. The horns of the cars, the revving of motorcycles, and more and more people pouring in.

“We had another candidate before, but with Arévalo’s proposal and the hope that we have in his father’s history, we are hoping for a change,” said Jordán Joaquín, 30, cradling a three-month-old baby in his arms alongside his wife outside the hotel. They came from San Pedro Sacatepéquez, a Semilla bastion some 15 kilometers from the capital, to celebrate but also issue a warning to the incoming government: “If he doesn’t listen to us, we’ll take to the streets so that he is held accountable. Just as we are celebrating him, we will also make demands of him.”

Along the avenue, Guatemalan flags were sold for 20 quetzales, or $2.50 a piece. Other spontaneous celebrations popped up in the Constitutional Plaza in the historic center district of Guatemala City, as well as in town squares in Totonicapán and Quetzaltenango.

As they closed out their press conference, when they saw the street celebration Arévalo and Herrera improvised a speech from a balcony. From down below, Arévalo could be spotted by his towering stature. As he waved from one side to another, his arm extended, his greeting didn’t even span the multitude. “Good evening, good people of Guatemala. Thank you very much. Thank you in the name of this country, because with your dedication you are giving new life to Guatemala,” he said. “Thank you for not losing hope. Thank you for not surrendering to the corrupt.”

The crowd erupted in victory shouts and the thicket, including Semilla legislators, kept walking down the street. It was already 11 at night and the party, which seemed like a miniature victory parade, showed no signs of stopping. By 5 in the morning, as the sun began to rise, firecrackers were still echoing.

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