Who’s involved: President-elect Bernardo Arévalo, Attorney General Porras, Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
Since early September, widespread protests have taken place across Guatemala in defense of presidential election results. Protesters supported the newly elected President Bernardo Arévalo, son of the first President elected in the Guatemalan democracy, and his political party, Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement).
In the presidential elections run-off on August 20, Guatemalan anti-corruption and center-left candidate Arévalo won over front-runner candidate Sandra Torres of the National Unity of Hope party, securing 58% and the majority of votes in 17 of Guatemala's 22 departments.
On August 28, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) confirmed the results of the elections, announcing that Arévalo will take office on 14 January 2024, replacing the outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei. However, on the same day, a few hours before the confirmation of the elections, Guatemala’s attorney general, Consuelo Porras, suspended the Semillas party pending investigations.
On September 3, Guatemala’s electoral authorities blocked the suspension of Arévalo’s party, temporarily restoring the party’s legal status at least until October 31, the official end of the electoral process. Nevertheless, it is still likely that the party will be suspended again from November 1st.
In response, Arévalo called prosecutors’ investigations into his electoral victory violations of the constitution and part of a coup attempt by “judges and prosecutors.”
On September 12, Arévalo decided to suspend his participation in the transition process, demanding the removal of Attorney General Porras. The President-elect announced that the process would resume once electoral interference ends and “the necessary institutional and political conditions are restored.”
On the same day, the Organization of American States (OAS) claimed that prosecutors’ actions were aimed at preventing Arévalo from taking office. Indeed, this was not the first electoral interference against the Semilla Movement. Following the June 25 first-round elections, which showed surprising support for Arévalo, the party’s legal status was questioned. On July 12, a minor judge, likely at the behest of Rafael Curruchiche, the head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, suspended the party for alleged money laundering and technical irregularities. On July 13, the Constitutional Court (CC) overturned the Seed Movement's disqualification from the August run-off as the suspension violated the electoral law.
Political and judicial interference in the electoral and presidential transition process in Guatemala is shedding light on the widespread corruption in the country’s political system.
Corruption and impunity are embedded in the Guatemalan system. In Guatemala’s political system, all elected officials enjoy complete immunity from prosecution, which can only be revoked by the Supreme Court and Congress. Guatemalan politicians have taken advantage of immunity for decades to avoid corruption convictions.
In 2007, the International Commission against Impunity (CICIG) was established. In 2019, the UN-backed commission was shut down by then-President Jimmy Morales.
In 2015, investigations conducted by the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the CICIG unveiled a scheme of corruption, fraud, and alliances with criminal groups involving then-President Otto Pérez Molina. The 2015 corruption scandal sparked a peaceful protest movement that led to Pérez Molina’s forced resignation. He was convicted of corruption in 2022.
The Semilla Movement originates from the 2015 anti-corruption protests. Arévalo’s progressive political program is centered on zero tolerance for corruption and reform of the criminal justice system and pledged to save the country from the rising authoritarian threat.
The victory of the Semilla Movement indicates widespread frustration with the corrupt establishment and expectations for a more transparent political system.
Outgoing President Giammattei denounced “unnecessary international involvement” in the election aftermath. The United States denounced unprecedented attempts to undermine the election results and urged Guatemalan authorities to end their intimidation efforts. The EU stresses that any attempts to prevent the democratic transition will have consequences for Guatemala’s international relations. Brazilian President Lula de Silva addressed the UN General Assembly supporting Arévalo, warning that electoral obstructions put Guatemala at risk of a coup.
Being the largest economy and most populated country in Central America, any further deterioration of democracy and the political crisis in Guatemala would lead to economic repercussions and affect foreign investment in the country. Guatemala's main economic partner is still the U.S.
The country also plays a strategic role in the transit of migrant flows and international organized crime networks.
Arévalo’s victory came as a “surprise” given the deep-rooted corruption networks in Guatemala’s political elite. The election’s results have been interpreted as a symptom of the population’s frustration with systemic corruption in Guatemala, worsened by the economic crisis and the increase in poverty and crime following COVID-19 emergence. In recent decades, Guatemala has experienced among the lowest levels of support for democracy in Latin America. Yet, the 2023 elections recorded a massive popular turnout. Moreover, international observers see the triumph of a center-left political force in Guatemala as a powerful means of halting democratic deterioration and authoritarianism in the region.
Given the uncertainty over the outcomes of the presidential transition process, it is likely that the anti-corruption protests in the country's major cities will continue. While not violent, such demonstrations could cause unrest and business and transportation disruption. The political crisis could also be protracted as the Semilla Movement may be suspended again in November at the end of the election period. Considering the substantial political and judicial interference, it is uncertain whether President-elected Arévalo will take office as expected on January 14th, 2024. The international community is observing the transition with concern.