Guatemala: Resisting Democratic Backsliding in the Least Likely of Places?

Guatemalan Congress. Photo by Arielaasturias via Wikimedia.

By Rachel A. Schwartz

For the past several years, Latin America has been in the throes of an “anti-incumbent wave,” with discontented voters seemingly tossing out the old to make way for the new. With the exception of Paraguay’s 2023 election and contests in the electoral autocracies of Nicaragua and Venezuela, every Latin American presidential election since mid-2018 has brought to power a non-incumbent. While not always driven by enthusiasm for political challengers, these pendulum swings reflect the wholesale rejection of the status quo in a time of lackluster economic growth, growing insecurity, and brazen government corruption.

Guatemala’s general elections, which took place on Sunday, June 25, appeared poised to disrupt the anti-incumbent trend, not because the candidate of President Alejandro Giammattei’s Vamos party would triumph but because the pre-electoral favorites were all incumbents of the prevailing ruling coalition. Dubbed by observers the “Pacto de Corruptos” [“Pact of the Corrupt”], this coalition—a loose assemblage of entrenched political elites, private sector leaders, organized criminal interests, and ex-military officials—have readily coalesced around core shared interests: 1) maintaining modalities of state predation, 2) preserving impunity, and 3) barring challengers to the status quo.

In the leadup to the elections, the coalition’s architects weaponized the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), Attorney General’s office (MP), and high courts to exclude anti-system competitors believed to represent a real threat to their grip on power. They also escalated the criminalization of prosecutors, judges, journalists, and human rights activists that previously led the charge against corruption and impunity during and after the decadelong stint of the United Nations International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Thus, while the country seemed all but certain to continue its pattern of denying the president’s successor the chance to govern, the table also appeared set to consolidate the incumbent regime and deepen authoritarian rule.

But the election results have instead stunned onlookers precisely because genuine political opposition and backlash managed to break through. Amid the highly fragmented electoral landscape, which included 22 presidential candidates, spoiled ballots exceeded the vote-share of any presidential ticket at 17.4 percent—perhaps the clearest sign of voter frustration and disillusionment with the electoral offering. But even more astonishing was the second-place finish of presidential hopeful Bernardo Arévalo de León, an academic and current Congressional deputy from the Semilla party, who received roughly 12 percent of the vote. The son of reformist president Juan José Arévalo (1945-1951), who presided over the early years of Guatemala’s “Democratic Spring,” Arévalo de León was projected to receive a mere three percent of the vote. Meanwhile, his center-left Semilla party, formed in 2017, currently holds only seven Congressional seats and comprises a narrow legislative opposition that has struggled to counteract the deteriorating rule of law.

But against the odds, Semilla won 23 seats and will be the third largest bloc in Congress, while Arévalo de León will advance to the August 20 runoff against former first lady and perennial presidential contender Sandra Torres of the Unity of National Hope (UNE). Torres, who was previously indicted on charges of illicit campaign finance and who has long been linked to corrupt political brokers and organized crime, garnered nearly 16 percent of the vote. However, in 2015 and 2019, she lost after advancing to the runoff, signaling the high degree of disapproval that continues to vex her candidacy and introduces greater uncertainty into the second-round vote.

What explains this stunning turn of events, and what do they mean for Guatemala’s political future? Of course, it is important to remember that in such a fragmented electoral context, polling is highly uncertain. That voters are completely fed up with the traditional political class and expressed their disgust at the ballot box is also not surprising—this despite the ruling coalition’s best attempts to cull the slate of electoral challengers and tilt the playing field in its favor. Had Semilla’s Arévalo de León surged in early polls or been perceived as an actual contender, it is plausible that he, too, would have fallen victim to phony allegations of electoral infractions that blocked him from competing.

But beyond the polling woes and miscalculations of the Pacto de Corruptos, an underappreciated factor in Semilla’s success may, in fact, be its incremental, under-the-radar political strategy, which has used Guatemala’s remaining democratic tools to garner support. Semilla began as a group of political analysis and discussion in 2014 but took off amid the landmark 2015 anti-government protests following revelations of numerous corruption schemes orchestrated by the now-defunct Patriot Party of President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti. Both leaders were stripped of their prosecutorial immunity and impeached, giving way to a national dialogue ahead of that year’s general elections and modest reforms to the Election and Political Parties Law.

Despite the momentum, the institutional barriers to transforming the movement into a political party remained high. In a race against the clock, Semilla successfully acquired the 23,500 signatures and formed the municipal structures needed to register as a political party and compete in 2019. But the challenges did not end with its formal inscription. Though Semilla describes itself as a “plural, participatory alternative majority” and seeks to pitch a wide tent for those committed to democracy and transparency, its core support base consists of educated middle and upper class Guatemalans in the capital city. In a country where the political left has been plagued by persistent division and mistrust, Semilla appeared to be another electoral vehicle that would segment the opposition and fail to achieve broader national reach. Moreover, its 2019 presidential candidate, anti-corruption crusader and former Attorney General Thelma Aldana, was barred from running after facing trumped up criminal charges. She was also forced to flee the country when investigations uncovered threats to her life engineered by the narco-linked Union for National Change (UCN) party.

But even amid the deteriorating political situation, Semilla persisted, calling out the anti-democratic maneuvers of the ruling coalition and extending its organization into other parts of the country. Though the majority of its district-based legislative seats will represent Guatemala City and the surrounding area, the party also picked up posts in the departments of Sacatepéquez, Chimaltenango, and Quetzaltenango. And though many have criticized the failure of the opposition to unite, Semilla and the leftist alliance Winaq-URNG did put forward a handful of joint candidates, including the aspirant for Guatemala City mayor Ninotchka Matute, who placed third.

It is hard to imagine Arévalo de León triumphing in the runoff without further bridging these divides. And as Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez notes, Sandra Torres’ overwhelming name recognition, which far exceeds her opponent’s, could prove decisive in the next round. Moreover, with the ruling coalition lining up behind Torres as the remaining guarantor of the Pacto de Corruptos, the coming months are likely to pose enormous challenges, including the potential for violence and the continuation of legal attacks against regime challengers. The local-level and Congressional success of the Vamos party, which will retain the largest legislative bloc, is also likely to result in the kind of political horse-trading that has exasperated voters.

But the shocking first-round results also highlight a critical point that has been buried amid the alarm over Guatemala’s authoritarian descent: as political scientist Laura Gamboa argues, democratic erosion is a slow process that contains within it moments for the opposition to respond and fight back. Semilla’s underestimated campaign and unforeseen advance to the presidential runoff is one of them. Much depends on the precise approach adopted by the opposition, including its decision to pursue institutional versus extrainstitutional strategies and its moderate versus radical objectives. According to Gamboa, whose study compares divergent regime trajectories in Colombia and Venezuela, when the opposition deploys moderate institutional strategies like electioneering, it may be able to chip away at democratic backsliding in a protracted, yet less risky fashion. Up until this point, Semilla has adhered to this approach despite the adverse political environment, perhaps one of the reasons why it was surprisingly successful yet failed to garner national attention.

If the Guatemalan election has taught us anything, it is that there is no telling what comes next—whether this nascent attempt to reverse the authoritarian slide will succeed on August 20 or some future election cycle, or whether it will collapse quickly under the power of a robust ruling coalition desperate to preserve entrenched corruption and impunity. But contrary to expectations, Guatemala’s withering democratic institutions have illuminated a path toward a different political future. Even if that path is faint, treacherous, and fleeting, it’s a start.

About the Author

Rachel A. Schwartz is an Assistant Professor of International and Area Studies at the University of Oklahoma, where her research focuses on the legacies of armed conflict, corruption, and human rights in Central America. Her book, Undermining the State from Within: The Institutional Legacies of Civil War in Central America, was published by Cambridge University Press in March 2023.

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