Central America / Politics

While under Threat, Electoral Tribunal Considers Protecting Semilla until Inauguration

Seven days until the legal protection of Semilla expires, the Guatemalan Supreme Electoral Tribunal is weighing whether to shield Arévalo’s party from spurious cancellation until inauguration. The magistrates’ immunity itself is under threat; prosecutors’ request that the Supreme Court revoke it is AG Consuelo Porras’ sword of Damocles.

Carlos Barrera
Carlos Barrera

Tuesday, October 24, 2023
Roman Gressier

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The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) is in a jam — one that could determine whether Attorney General Consuelo Porras is successful in barring the January 14 swearing-in of President-Elect Bernardo Arévalo.

On one hand, the magistrates will decide within one week whether to heed civil society calls to extend the electoral season —which concludes on October 31— to inauguration, shielding Arévalo’s Semilla party from cancellation. The OAS has repeatedly and unanimously criticized as baseless political persecution Attorney General Consuelo Porras’ investigations of Semilla, launched after its surprise success in the June 25 primary.

The Tribunal has privately discussed an extension three times, per ConCriterio. President Irma Palencia told the radio program that they are “evaluating different scenarios” and remain undecided. Ex-magistrate César Conde argued on the radio program on Monday that they should do so to “ensure the swearing-in on January 14 and 15,” citing prosecutors’ illegal seizure of certified ballots on September 30.

On the other hand, Porras could try to dismantle the Tribunal altogether by indicting its magistrates in the coming weeks or days. Her office has already filed repeated requests, now in the hands of the Supreme Court, to revoke the TSE magistrates’ immunity.

A ruling would be a wild card; Congress, controlled by corrupt parties, has allowed the Supreme Court, soiled by influence-trafficking, to overstay their term for four years now.

The TSE’s rift with Porras stems from its stubborn certification of Arévalo’s clear victory —he took home 60.9 percent of the vote— amid raids and intimidation. But while its magistrates appeared as defenders of democracy, they are at best its antiheroes: last year, magistrate Blanca Alfaro told the U.S. Embassy that President Giammattei had repeatedly bribed her colleagues. The Tribunal’s own contamination is their central weakness.

It’s no coincidence that Ricardo Méndez Ruiz —president of the Foundation Against Terrorism (FCT), a key Porras ally pushing unfounded far-right claims that Semilla committed electoral fraud— called on the Supreme Court to move against the TSE magistrates, who he labeled “a quintet of gangsters.”

On Aug. 28, 2023, three hours after the Citizen Registrar of Guatemala
On Aug. 28, 2023, three hours after the Citizen Registrar of Guatemala's Supreme Electoral Tribunal provisionally suspended the Semilla party, the magistrates of the same electoral authority certified the August 20 victory of Bernardo Arévalo and Karin Herrera. Photo Johan Ordónez/AFP

The FCT has also vowed that Arévalo will be imprisoned, counting down the days until October 31 on the platform X, using giant numbers in military shades of green.

Their rage has even reached Giammattei, who they blame for Arévalo’s victory after failing to commit his own fraud —the president is widely seen as an anti-Arévalo grand puppet-master— and incapable of repressing the mass street demonstrations in support of the president-elect.

It would appear to be a war of all against all. On Monday afternoon the Supreme Court rejected a request from Méndez Ruiz to revoke Giammattei’s immunity. But the Foundation has won smaller battles; the minister of governance stepped down on October 16, while in the crosshairs of the FCT for publicly refusing to disperse the protests.

In a monthslong pressure cooker, there is also the question of whether some of the TSE magistrates will resign as a result of the siege. Citing threats, Alfaro announced on August 20, election day, that she would resign, but has yet to do so. Paradoxically, on Thursday, October 26, she is set to become the new TSE president.

With the Supreme Electoral Tribunal on the brink, El Faro’s editorial board wrote last Thursday that any solution to the political crisis passes through Giammattei calling for Porras’ resignation: a political, rather than strictly legal, solution.

“Giammattei is president and therefore chiefly responsible for the current political crisis. His decisions in the coming days will determine the future of Guatemala,” they wrote. “Giammattei holds the decision to lead this solution (…) but his political allies, big businessmen, and other insiders are pressuring him to nullify the election and bar the president-elect from donning the presidential sash in January.”

Arévalo’s own dilemma

Giammattei’s hand-washing has pushed other key actors in the political crisis to the negotiating table. In the last two weeks the U.S. Embassy has hosted over a half-dozen meetings including Arévalo, CACIF business elites, the Indigenous authorities leading the protests, and Cardinal Ramazzini. U.S. Undersecretary of State Brian Nichols arrived yesterday in Guatemala City to meet in person with Indigenous leaders, Arévalo, and Foreign Minister Mario Búcaro.

But Porras’ refusal to step down and distrust between the parties appear to be rocks lodged in the negotiations’ shoes. A CACIF businessman told El Faro English this week that Arévalo’s support for the Indigenous protests has fostered distrust in the private sector toward his political project.

During the last weekend of campaigning before the second round of elections, Arévalo toured western Guatemala. On August 11, after his rally at a town square full of supporters in Santa Cruz del Quiché, dozens of people waited to shake his hand as he stepped off the stage before leaving for Huehuetenango. Photo Carlos Barrera
During the last weekend of campaigning before the second round of elections, Arévalo toured western Guatemala. On August 11, after his rally at a town square full of supporters in Santa Cruz del Quiché, dozens of people waited to shake his hand as he stepped off the stage before leaving for Huehuetenango. Photo Carlos Barrera

On Friday, October 20, Arévalo and Juan Jacobo Árbenz, son of the former president who was removed in 1954 in a CIA-sponsored military coup, publicly embraced. It was the 79th anniversary of the Guatemalan revolution that marked the definitive end of the military dictatorship of Jorge Ubico (1931-1944) and led to the free election of both men’s fathers; Arévalo spoke of “this moment of unity and consensus against tyranny.”

“Arévalo has both tapped into and tried to downplay the legacy of his father, fondly remembered by many elderly Guatemalans and their parents, whether urbanite or campesino,” writes Carlos Barrera in a 15-photo gallery capturing the president-elect’s final campaign tour through the western and prominently Mayan departments of Quiché, Huehuetenango, and San Marcos in late August.

Another front for the president-elect has been the challenge of strengthening ties with rural Guatemala, for whom October 20 has long gone unremarked. Two weeks earlier, Xinka Parliament President Aleisar Arana told El Faro English that he hopes to see more openness from Arévalo: “Dialogue with Indigenous peoples must be part of the democratic springtime in Guatemala.”

On Friday in Guatemala City, a familiar face stepped into the center of a crowd of 200 people gathered in the Constitutional Plaza for an open-mic protest: “A caravan of the Q’eqchi’ people has arrived,” said Bernardo Caal Xol, who spent four years in prison for opposing a hydroelectric dam, “and we will not sleep in our own beds until Porras and Curruchiche resign.”

This article first appeared in the October 24 edition of the El Faro English newsletter. Subscribe here to tune into Central America.

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