Opinion / Politics

In the August 20 Election, Guatemalan Democracy Is on the Line

Víctor Peña
Víctor Peña

Tuesday, August 8, 2023
Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez and Lucas Perelló

Amid a weeks-long effort to annul the Semilla Movement, the party will face the National Unity of Hope (UNE) in Guatemala’s presidential runoff on August 20. On the ballot will be UNE’s Sandra Torres, the former first lady and perennial candidate who has reinvented herself as a social conservative, and Semilla’s Bernardo Arévalo, the progressive academic and first-round surprise whose father was elected president in 1944 on the heels of the Guatemalan Revolution.

More than between two candidates, Guatemalans must choose between two broader political projects almost completely at odds with each other. UNE and Semilla embody not only different forces in Guatemala’s recent political history, but also contrasting approaches to electoral politics and opposing visions of what is at stake. The runoff could decide the future of the country’s democracy.

UNE has been a major force in Guatemalan politics since it emerged as a social democratic party in 2002. Five years later, founder Álvaro Colom reached the presidency by building a broad base of support, especially in rural areas, on a platform centered around reducing poverty and inequality. Torres served as First Lady during Colom’s presidency and coordinated the government’s social programs, helping her develop a strong following outside of Guatemala City and laying the groundwork for back-to-back presidential bids in 2015 and 2019.

UNE’s staying power has been remarkable given Guatemala’s fragmented and volatile party system: this year alone there were 30 active political parties, at least 12 of which are set to disappear after failing to garner enough votes. The party has sustained its support in part through clientelist networks, many of which rely on its dominance in local governments and registry of almost 90,000 members, more than twice as many as any other party and over three times as many as Semilla. UNE will draw on its vast resources and rural support in the runoff.

Torres’ party has also survived by adapting. The UNE legislative bloc has been a key ally to President Alejandro Giammattei in the current Congress and, in the run-up to this year’s race, Torres shed UNE’s traditional social-democratic agenda in favor of a conservative Christian platform, going as far as to choose Romeo Guerra, an Evangelical pastor, as her running mate.

Semilla (“seed” or “kernel” in Spanish) was constituted as a political party in 2017 with the promise of offering an alternative to the corrupt political system in which the UNE had flourished. Efforts to reorganize Semilla, which got its start in 2014 as an “analysis group” of university students, academics, and intellectuals, as a political party gained steam in 2015 amid mass protests against widespread corruption, including against a customs fraud scandal involving then-President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti.

From its origins, Semilla has presented itself as a progressive and grassroots alternative to Guatemala’s corrupt, clientelist, and increasingly anti-democratic political establishment. In 2019, Semilla nominated Thelma Aldana —the attorney general who helped trigger the 2015 protests by leading a series of corruption probes against political elites— as its presidential candidate. Whereas politically-motivated rulings ultimately prevented Aldana from running, Semilla candidates, including Arévalo, won seven seats in the 160-member National Congress.

Semilla has developed its core following in the urban areas in and around Guatemala City and, to a lesser extent, other cities like Quetzaltenango. Unlike Torres’s party, Semilla has not developed clientelist networks, and its access to funding and other campaign resources also lags far behind UNE’s.

UNE and Semilla readily displayed the apparent resource disparity when we followed the two parties on the campaign trail ahead of the first round. While UNE bused hundreds of supporters to and from campaign events —where it gave away food, clothes, and construction materials— Semilla staged more makeshift affairs. One Semilla organizer claimed that the party could not afford to rent a stage for its post-election rally on June 26. Instead, we watched as Arévalo and other party leaders delivered speeches from the bed of a party member’s pick-up truck.

Semilla says it has relied mostly on volunteer campaigners. Crucially, the party and its supporters have also capitalized on social media to spread their message: voters we spoke to in Guatemala City and in neighboring Villa Nueva said they had chosen to vote for Semilla at the last minute after seeing the party’s posts on TikTok, Twitter, and WhatsApp.

Ahead of the June election, virtually all observers including, privately, many within Semilla, agreed that a party with minimal recognition or organization outside major cities stood little chance against well-known and resource-rich parties like UNE. Yet Semilla secured not only a spot in the presidential runoff but also the third-largest number of seats in the legislature (23), behind only UNE (28) and Giammattei’s Vamos (39).

Competing narratives

Semilla’s first-round upset suggests that how the two parties frame the run-off could be decisive. Immediately following the first round of voting, it became clear that the two parties are offering strikingly different narratives about what is at stake on August 20.

UNE has cast a potential Semilla victory as a dystopian nightmare, warning that an Arévalo presidency would advance a radical leftist agenda and sink Guatemala into socialism and authoritarianism, similar to the pariah states of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. (Torres also claims to draw inspiration from Nayib Bukele, the authoritarian leader who is dismantling democracy in neighboring El Salvador.)

In her first statements after the election, Torres warned: “We know the danger that Uruguayan citizen Bernardo Arévalo represents for the country; the country is endangered by his intention to turn Guatemala into another Venezuela.”

Torres vowed to defend “our principles and values of life, family and religious freedom” and accused Arévalo of supporting marriage equality (Arévalo has said he will not seek changes to existing marriage law). “We will always defend boys and girls from those influences,” said Torres. “The only proposal of the Semilla party and its Uruguayan candidate is to bring back the 2030 agenda” — a reference to both the United Nations’ plan for sustainable development, a byword for left-wing ‘globalism’ among the Guatemalan far-right, and the fact that Arévalo was born in Uruguay while his parents were in exile.

UNE’s framing of the contest as an ideological battle has sought to strike a chord in a country still haunted by the memory of a bloody civil war that raged from 1960 to 1996. Semilla has instead cast the vote as a referendum on Guatemala’s political establishment that transcends ideological preferences. Because Guatemalans are, on the whole, both right-leaning and tired of the status quo, the election may well be decided by which of these two narratives prevails.

According to Semilla, the revolution of 1944-54 and the 2015 mass anti-corruption protests, both known as “Guatemalan springs,” represent a vast democratic potential that has been squandered by corrupt politicians and unfettered business interests. The party promises to use these watershed moments as blueprints for a new future.

“They may cut down all the flowers, but spring will always return,” wrote one demonstrator in Totonicapán, Guatemala in July 2023, borrowing from poet Julia Esquivel. Election interference by the Public Prosecutor
“They may cut down all the flowers, but spring will always return,” wrote one demonstrator in Totonicapán, Guatemala in July 2023, borrowing from poet Julia Esquivel. Election interference by the Public Prosecutor's Office has drawn rebukes around the country. Photo Víctor Peña

Arévalo summed up this narrative at his final first-round campaign rally on June 21: “I know that my father—Juan José Arévalo—is with me. His works, his legacy, his actions, were not just government measures. Rather, they were the expression of a dream for a Guatemala with dignity. A dream that now lives in me, that now lives in you, that now lives in all of us, that now lives in all the decent people of Guatemala who are sick of corruption.”

“A dream,” added Arévalo, “in which politics is once again for and by the people of Guatemala, and not for the profit and dark interests of the same ones as always.” Five days later, at the party’s first-round victory rally, held in the same plaza where protests forced Pérez Molina’s resignation in 2015, the party announced: “Spring Returns!”

Either outcome in the runoff would present its own set of challenges for Guatemala’s troubled democracy. Under Presidents Jimmy Morales and Giammattei, the Guatemalan political establishment has abused state institutions to persecute critics, harass anti-corruption prosecutors, censor the press, and exclude several opposition candidates from the ballot box. Corruption, clientelism, and illicit campaign financing have also critically undermined the integrity of the country’s electoral processes.

The danger with Torres—who has repositioned herself as an establishment-friendly candidate— is that, if she is elected, this process of democratic backsliding is all but guaranteed to continue. But if Arévalo wins, he will likely be forced to continue to wage at least two different battles against Guatemala’s political establishment.

The first battle is already well under way, as some elites have tried to use courtroom tactics to challenge Arévalo’s place in the runoff. On July 1, nine parties asked the Constitutional Court for a recount of the June 25 vote. On July 12, after a court-ordered audit failed to change the result of the vote count, Rafael Curruchiche —a top prosecutor sanctioned by the United States for obstructing corruption investigations— accused Semilla of collecting false signatures during its 2017 registration process and of possible money laundering. At Curruchiche’s request, Fredy Orellana —the same judge who ordered journalist José Rubén Zamora to a politically motivated trial— ordered the party’s immediate dissolution. On July 21, Judge Orellana authorized a raid on the Semilla headquarters.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal refused to dissolve Semilla, pointing to a provision in Guatemalan electoral law that parties cannot be suspended while elections are underway. Though the Constitutional Court has sided with the Tribunal, it has also allowed prosecutors to continue investigating the party.

Even if Arévalo survives until the runoff, establishment parties could unleash the full force of their clientelist machines on election day; vote tampering, particularly in the rural areas where Semilla’s presence remains weak, cannot be ruled out. And in the event that Arévalo wins on August 20, establishment actors might stage a lawfare campaign to keep him from being sworn in or to hamstring his government from the outset, for example by dissolving Semilla afterward.

If the danger to democracy with a Torres presidency is continuity, then the danger with an Arévalo presidency are the fierce antibodies generated by any serious attempts at reform.

In the case that Arévalo prevails, another battle will begin to unfold as soon as he becomes president on January 14 of next year: He would find many more foes than friends in the powerful Congress as he attempts to implement his party’s reform program. Semilla leaders have suggested that they could turn to mass mobilization to try to combat congressional gridlock. Guatemala’s establishment would also continue to exercise significant power through the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the courts, local governments, the military, and the most conservative segment of the private sector. The likely result is a clash that could derail democracy further by spurring social unrest and inter-branch conflict.

Semilla represents a dying breed: aspiring heirs to a tradition of moderate reform movements that once championed democracy and confronted dictators in Guatemala and across Latin America. Now, in a region plagued by corrupt politicians, clientelist machines, and populist firebrands, such movements are as rare as they are indispensable.

The only certainty is that there is no easy path forward for democracy in Guatemala, a country with a history of ephemeral springs followed by long winters. But Arévalo offers the best —and perhaps only— real opportunity to reverse the country’s democratic decline.

Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez, a PhD candidate in Political Science at Harvard University, is a USIP-Minerva Peace and Security Scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Lucas Perelló is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Marist College.

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