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Guatemala will vote in defense of democracy

16 August, 2023 | Christa Bollmann

The electoral campaign ended on August 16, but it will not be until Sunday, August 20 that it will be known who president of Guatemala from January 14, 2024, will be. The position will be contested by the third-time candidate Sandra Torres, of the National Unity of Hope party (UNE), and Bernardo Arévalo, of the Semilla Movement, whose passage to the runoff among 22 contenders was as surprising for the opposition as for his own party. Arevalo leads Torres by 22 points.

Arévalo would become president, if the result of the most recent poll presented this morning by Cid Gallup and the Libertad y Desarrollo Foundation is fulfilled, in which 61 percent of voters intend to vote for the progressive candidate – only 39 percent are in favor of Torres – and if the opposition formed by those who oppose a change that, on the one hand seeks to eliminate corruption embedded in the State and on the other, eliminate private and private privileges and seek more investment in health, education, and employment from a stronger State allows it.

Until a week before the election the percentage of undecided voters dropped from 29 to 18 percent. Only 7 percent of the respondents plan to vote null and that indicator is relevant, if we take into account that it was the null votes or the exhaustion by the system that won the first round election on June 25th, with about 17 percent, even above Torres (16 percent) and Arévalo (12 percent).

The null vote will make the difference once again, on Sunday, in the middle of a seriously questioned process, in which the Supreme Electoral Tribunal has not been free of accusations. Even so, in these almost two months of the last stage of the contest, he has asserted his independence to avoid breaking the order that the Constitution should guarantee.

Both parties are of social democratic origin in a traditionally conservative and religious country, where the republican system guarantees a secular state. However, Torres, with the intention of winning the presidency, has moved to the right and claims to have converted to Christianity, because the evangelical churches support her. The former vice-president of the Socialist International changed his speech to attract followers and in every public intervention defends “private property, life and the family”, from the perspective of the most conservative groups in society.

The candidate was first lady when social Democrat Álvaro Colom Caballeros won the election in 2008. She divorced him in 2012, to run for president and has not won an election since. In 2023 it represents continuity and authoritarianism. Arévalo represents, on the one hand, those who do not want more of the same, and reject the corruption, clientelism and abuses of power characteristic of the governments of the last 20 years, including the UNE government, in which Torres was the protagonist, without holding a popularly elected office.

Arevalo is the son of Juan José Arevalo Bermejo, former president, who is still remembered as the first revolutionary who returned democracy to Guatemala in 1944, after the 31-year dictatorship of Jorge Ubico. The current presidential candidate symbolizes the alternation in power at a time when respect for the popular will is at risk and the opposition threatens to break the constitutional order. The progressive has in his government plan a frontal fight against corruption that touches a structure in which public officials, politicians, businessmen and judges are involved.

In the first round, Torres won first place with 16 percent of the votes (15.86%). Arevalo, who represents the alternance, got about 12 percent of the votes (11.7779%). The null (966,389) were more and are equivalent to 17.38% of the 4,202,442 valid, but legally they do not count, because they would have to have reached 51%, to annul the election. This is established by the electoral and political parties’ law. The official candidate, Manuel Conde, for whom about eight percent of registered people voted (7.8389%%), only came in third place.

No one saw Arévalo’s rise to second place coming in the last two weeks of the initial campaign. He surpassed those from the right who were leading the polls: Edmond Mulet, of the Cabal party, who was shaping up as the favorite (6.9%) and Zury Ríos, of Valor (6.6%). The daughter of former de facto head of State Efraín Ríos Montt, at some point during the campaign was considered a possible competitor of the UNE candidate.

Arévalo’s vote is swelled by the members of a party that emerged from the citizens protests of 2015 that led to the resignation and subsequent imprisonment of former President Otto Pérez Molina and his vice president Roxana Baldetti. It is made up of a middle-class majority with a democratic vocation, from the traditional left to the most progressive, and even a moderate right. A group of academics and intellectuals interested in promoting social change stands out. The strongest vote is represented by young students and professionals dissatisfied with the current situation in the country. Guatemala ranks very low on the list of countries that measure human development.

Torres and allies against Arevalo

The structure of the UNE party earned Torres the first place, but with the arrival of Arevalo he saw big animal steps and the possibility of losing the election is not remote. The population is alert to possible events that may occur outside the law, to achieve the presidency. Videos have begun to circulate that show a strategy to put restrictions on the electoral process.

The UNE board prosecutors who must ensure the order and validity during the voting are instructed to contest votes, and each one has a price. It is worth noting that the prosecutors of the Torres party will receive Q300 for being there, while those of Arevalo will participate voluntarily.

From the ruling party, Torres has the support of President Alejandro Giammattei, although in statements to the press, shortly after her victory was known, the candidate assured that she would not accept government support. No one forgets that, in the 2019 contest, the current president offered to put her in prison, and he did, but soon after, from the MP and the FECI she was released and was registered as a candidate by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). Today, Torres is the guarantee that the outgoing president and his trusted man remain in impunity, as there are allegations of corruption during his term.

Yesterday, Torres confirmed the support of the Association of Military Veterans (Avemilgua) because it offered a bonus of Q36 thousand (about US$4 thousand) to the ex-combatants of the in the internal armed conflict. The group that criticized Torres’ impunity six years ago is linked to the far-right Anti-Terrorism Foundation, which, among other actions, supports a kind of “criminal prosecution against the Semilla Movement.” This is how Arévalo describes the performance of those who oppose his candidacy and want to annul the party, which already has 21 elected deputies to the Congress of the Republic.

None of the actions have been verified. According to the electoral law, no party can be suspended while an election is underway, although new actions against Arévalo and the Semilla Movement are planned, starting next August 21. Neither the defense lawyers nor the political group have had access to the file, although both on social networks headed by FCT leaders and anonymous accounts a disinformation campaign has been unleashed about it, which makes one think of fake news as part of a black campaign or information leaking by the authorities to the opposition.


The judicialization of the electoral process

Since June 26, one day after the first round result was known and Arévalo’s passage to the next round, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, in charge of Consuelo Porras and the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI) of Rafael Corruchiche made public the case, still under reservation, against him that raises from suspending the legal personality of Semilla, for alleged false signatures in the registration of the party, to the alleged money laundering. It was Judge Fredy Orellana of the seventh criminal court who linked the case to that prosecutor’s office, which in due process would have to be known before by the Electoral Crimes Prosecutor’s Office. Since then, 13 related complaints have been filed against both the TSE and Semilla.

In a single presidential debate between Torres and Arévalo, on August 14, the candidate took advantage of every opportunity to intervene to demand an explanation from her contender about the alleged false signatures. Arévalo, who limited herself to answering questions from the moderators and emphasizing her promise to fight corruption, used the right of reply to remind the audience that it is the candidate who owes explanations to the population for the illicit crimes with which she is linked, such as the case of unreported electoral financing and links to drug trafficking, according to InSightCrime reports

Torres has joined the disinformation campaign against Arévalo and the Semilla Movement, both on social networks and in public spaces, including his campaign rallies in which he pejoratively referred to the members of the group associating them with the homosexual community.

Another of the actions against Semilla that is attributed to Torres’ opposition includes the placement of false advertising of Arévalo’s party in which messages in favor of same-sex marriage or in favor of abortion are highlighted. The Semilla party denounced that this is propaganda outside its communication plan.

Although Arévalo and Semilla from a progressive and social democratic vision manifest respect for the human rights of all groups in society, without any discrimination and validate the current legislation in the country regarding this issue, their plan does not include legalizing abortion or promoting same-sex marriage. The advertisement was withdrawn and Arévalo, in his most recent press interviews, has reiterated it.

On the other hand, the publicity of the Seed Movement has been exchanged by the opponents. It contains pro-life and pro-family messages endorsed by churches led by evangelical leaders who support Sandra Torres. Vice presidential candidate Romeo Guerra is one of them. The survey by Cid Gallup and the Libertad y Desarrollo Foundation reports that 7 percent of respondents have been told by their evangelical pastor who to vote for. There are also representatives of the Catholic church that in some of the country offer a bag of groceries in exchange for the vote. This is the “Solidarity Bag” that has characterized the candidate that offers everything from cash to land for the neediest families.

It coincides with the campaign, the presentation in the country of the Premiere of The Sounds of Silence (The Sounds of Freedom) that denounces, based on a real case, the trafficking of minors. Directed by the actor and former singer of the Mexican group Kairo, José Eduardo Verástigui. The now producer is an ultraconservative, far-right political activist On his visit to Guatemala, President Alejandro Giammattei decorated him with the Peace Medal. Among the information circulating, the award-winner is seen taking pictures with the prosecutor of the MP Consuelo Porras and supporting the candidacy of Sandra Torres.

In the last week Sandra Torres has become the official candidate and her alliance with one of her main opponents, the Vamos party, which won more than 200 mayoralties out of 350 throughout the country seeks to surpass the 51 percent of the votes needed to win the presidency. However, this effort is still weighed down by the anti-vote for those who in previous elections have told Torres “It’s not his turn.”

If Arévalo wins the presidency, his main challenge will begin next Monday, August 21, when the process initiated from the courts against the Seed party will continue. If he takes office, he will govern with a Congress dominated by Torres and his allies and a Judicial Body co-opted by a structure burdened by corruption. Meanwhile, an atmosphere of hope persists in which Guatemala seems to be in favor of democracy.