What an election surprise in Central America means for democracy
People in line to vote in Chimaltenango, Guatemala, June 25, 2023. The election in the Central American nation is marked by the exclusion of top candidates and calls to crack down on violent crime
By JODY GARCÍA and SIMON ROMERO
Judges and prosecutors driven from the country. Independent news media under attack. Top presidential candidates barred from running.
Warning signs of the teetering democracy in Central America’s most populous country flashed in the weeks leading up to Guatemala’s presidential election. But the vote on Sunday delivered a seismic jolt: a candidate whose campaign centered on rooting out corruption won enough votes to force a runoff, delivering a stunning blow to the country’s political ruling class.
Bernardo Arévalo, 64, a professorial lawmaker with degrees in philosophy and anthropology, won 12% of the vote, with 98% of votes counted in Sunday’s first round, the electoral authority said Monday.
Sandra Torres, 67, a former first lady considered a standard-bearer for the conservative establishment, came in first with nearly 16% of the vote.
Torres and Arévalo were the top two finishers and will compete in a runoff on Aug. 20, despite claiming such low percentages of the vote, because many Guatemalans left their ballots blank or nullified them.
In fact, the 24% of the ballots that were blank or nullified were far higher than either candidate’s vote total. In addition, nearly 40% of voters did not take part in Sunday’s elections.
Arévalo’s surprise showing and the lack of voter participation show a high level of disenchantment with Guatemala’s political system, election analysts said. The government has come under scrutiny over increasingly authoritarian tactics that have targeted independent news media and forced into exile dozens of judges and prosecutors focused on fighting corruption.
“We are seeing how the population expresses its fatigue with a system, with a form of politics and government,” said Edie Cux, director of Citizen Action, a nonprofit that was part of an alliance of groups that oversaw the electoral process. “The population is demanding reforms.”
Two establishment candidates who were viewed as top contenders — Edmond Mulet, a former diplomat, and Zury Ríos, a daughter of a former dictator convicted of genocide — finished in fifth and sixth place, respectively.
Before Sunday’s vote, the nation’s electoral authority had disqualified at least four candidates from running, including Carlos Pineda, a mercurial front-runner who had unsettled the political establishment, and Thelma Cabrera, an organizer trying to unify Guatemala’s long-marginalized Indigenous voters.
The campaign was dominated by a handful of recurring themes, including an increase in violent crime and economic challenges in a country with some of the highest rates of poverty and inequality in Latin America.
Torres, who was the runner-up in the two most recent presidential elections, has pledged to address the violence by emulating a strategy used in neighboring El Salvador with the goal of cracking down on gangs.
Still, it was Arévalo, often called Tío Bernie (Uncle Bernie) and a son of a president fondly remembered by many Guatemalans for creating the country’s social security system in the 1940s, who seemingly came out of nowhere to garner enough support to advance. The leadership of his party, called Semilla, or Seed, is comprised largely of urban professionals, such as university professors, engineers and owners of small businesses.
Loren Giordano, 33, a graphic designer and an entrepreneur in Guatemala City, said she voted for Arévalo because his party promotes measures that she supports, including proposed legislation to increase spending on the training of cancer specialists, equipment and medicines. But the measure failed to pass.
Still, Giordano does not have faith that Arévalo’s showing on Sunday will yield tangible improvements, even if he wins the presidency.
“I support Semilla and I think they do want to make a change, but I don’t think the system will allow it,” she said. “It seems utopian to think that we will have a candidate who is not involved in corruption and narcopolitics.”
Styling himself as a progressive social democrat, Arévalo drew attention in his campaign to the legacy of his father, who was also known for promoting freedom of speech and of the press and for encouraging organized labor to play a political role in the country.
Arévalo was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, where his family lived while his father was in exile, after his successor as president was overthrown in a coup in 1954. He grew up in parts of South America until age 15 when the family returned to Guatemala.
Arévalo, despite his unexpected performance, faces an uphill battle against Torres in the coming weeks. She has broad name recognition and is building on her time as first lady, when she was the face of popular anti-poverty programs, including food assistance and cash transfers for poor families.
Torres can also draw on the support of an establishment unlikely to upend the status quo, which is represented by President Alejandro Giammattei, who was barred by law from seeking reelection to a second term. Some other countries in the region, most notably Mexico, have similar laws.
During Giammattei’s tenure, Guatemala has shifted from being a regional model for its anti-corruption efforts to a country that, like several of its neighbors, has undermined democratic norms.
But Arévalo has also skillfully mounted an insurgent campaign, mixing the deployment of memes with serious positioning on issues like improving public health services. He has repeatedly said that he would recruit prosecutors and judges who had been forced to leave Guatemala as advisers to aid him on tackling corruption.
Some prominent establishment figures questioned Arévalo’s showing, arguing that it had less to do with his appeal than other factors.
“Polls are not credible,” Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, president of the Foundation Against Terrorism, a far-right organization that has sought to discredit anti-corruption judges and prosecutors, wrote on Twitter. “The result is the responsibility of those who encouraged nullified votes. Arévalo has to thank them more than his voters.”
Still, in a country where the winning electoral formula often includes deep-pocketed campaigns, occupying significant broadcast time on national television channels and the blessings of economic elites, Arévalo had “none of those,” said Marielos Chang, a political scientist at the Universidad del Valle in Guatemala City.
“No one would have believed it when the presidential campaign began three months ago, that Bernardo Arévalo would have enough votes to advance,’’ she said.