Guatemala’s Election: What to Know About the Candidates, Issues and Results

By John Mercury August 23, 2023

Guatemala is holding a runoff presidential election on Sunday in which an anticorruption crusader is vying against a former first lady aligned with the country’s conservative political establishment to lead Central America’s most populous nation.

The vote comes after a tumultuous first round in June, in which judicial leaders had barred several candidates viewed as threats to the country’s ruling elites.

After the insurgent antigraft candidate Bernardo Arévalo unexpectedly advanced to the runoff, the election is emerging as a potential landmark moment in Central America’s largest country, both a leading source of migration to the United States and one of Washington’s longtime allies in the region.

Guatemala’s fragile democracy, repeatedly plagued with governments engulfed in scandal, has gone from pioneering anticorruption strategies to shutting down such efforts and forcing judges and prosecutors to flee the country.

Here’s what to know about Sunday’s vote.

The disqualifications of several contenders, rather than benefiting the establishment’s preferred candidates, opened a path for the anticorruption campaigner, Mr. Arévalo. His surprise showing in the June vote allowed him to advance to the runoff.

Subsequent efforts to prevent him from running by a top prosecutor — whom the United States has placed on a list of corrupt officials — also backfired as they prompted calls from Guatemalan political figures across the ideological spectrum to allow Mr. Arévalo to remain in the race.

Still, concerns have emerged that supporters of Sandra Torres, the former first lady running against him, could interfere with the voting, especially in rural areas — a worrisome possibility in a country where efforts to manipulate outcomes have marred previous elections.

And while polls suggest that Mr. Arévalo could win in a landslide, the prosecutor, Rafael Curruchiche, in recent days resurrected his attempt to suspend Mr. Arévalo’s party.

Citing what the prosecutor described as irregularities in the process of gathering signatures for creating the party, Mr. Curruchiche said that he could suspend the party after Sunday’s election and issue arrest warrants for some of its members.

If Mr. Arévalo won, such a move would quickly weaken his ability to govern. He has campaigned against such tactics, casting attention on a judicial offensive that has compelled dozens of anticorruption prosecutors and judges to flee the country.

The Biden administration, along with numerous Latin American governments, has urged Guatemalan officials not to manipulate the election’s outcome.

The race has unfolded amid a crackdown by the current conservative administration targeting not only prosecutors and judges, but also nonprofits and journalists like José Rubén Zamora, the publisher of a leading newspaper, who was sentenced in June to up to six years in prison.

While Guatemala’s president, the broadly unpopular leader Alejandro Giammattei, is prohibited by law from seeking re-election, concerns over a slide toward authoritarianism have grown more acute as he has expanded his sway over the country’s institutions.

Bernardo Arévalo, 64, an intellectual, is the son of a Juan José Arévalo, a former president who is still exalted for creating Guatemala’s social security system and protecting free speech. After the former leader was forced into exile in the 1950s, Bernardo Arévalo was born in Uruguay and grew up in Venezuela, Chile and Mexico before returning to Guatemala as a teenager.

A moderate who criticizes leftist governments like that of Nicaragua, Mr. Arévalo is nevertheless viewed in Guatemala’s conservative political landscape as the most progressive candidate to get this far since democracy was restored in 1985 after more than three decades of military rule.

He has drawn much of his support from cities, and his party largely comprises urban professionals like university professors and engineers.

He has made tackling corruption and impunity a centerpiece of his campaign. But he has distanced himself from rivals seeking to emulate a crackdown on gangs by the conservative president of neighboring El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, contending that Guatemala’s security challenges are different in size and scope, with gang activity concentrated in certain parts of the country. Mr. Arévalo is proposing to hire thousands of new police officers and upgrade security at prisons.

Mr. Arévalo has vowed to alleviate poverty in Guatemala, one of Latin America’s most unequal countries, through a large job creation program aimed at upgrading roads and other infrastructure. He has also promised to ramp up agricultural production by providing low-interest loans to farmers.

William López, 34, a teacher in Guatemala City who works at a call center, said he viewed Mr. Arévalo and his party, Movimiento Semilla (“Seed Movement”), as “an opportunity for profound change, since they’ve shown they don’t have skeletons in their closet.”

Sandra Torres, 67, is the former wife of Álvaro Colom, who was Guatemala’s president from 2008 to 2012 and who died in January at 71. She has repeatedly tried to win the presidency, including an attempt to become his successor: In 2011, she divorced Mr. Colom in an effort to get around a law that prohibits a president’s relatives from running for office.

Although she was barred from running in that contest, she was the runner-up in the two most recent presidential elections. After the last one, in 2019, she was detained on charges of illicit campaign financing and spent time under house arrest. But a judge closed the case late last year, opening the way for her to run.

On the campaign trail, she has drawn support from her party, National Unity of Hope, which is well established around Guatemala and has many local officials in office.

She has expressed admiration for Mr. Bukele, the Salvadoran leader overseeing a crackdown on gangs. She also vowed to bolster food assistance and cash transfers for poor families, building on her time as first lady when she was the face of such popular programs.

Ms. Torres is thought to be polling well among rural voters and people working in the informal sector.

“I like her proposals to help poor people,” said Magdalena Sag, 30, a saleswoman who attended the closing event for Ms. Torres’s campaign. “Guatemala has a lot of unemployed people who need assistance.”

Infrastructure: Outside Guatemala City, the capital, the country is lacking in paved roads and other essential infrastructure. Both candidates have proposed to build thousands of miles of new roads and improve existing ones. Both have also vowed to build Guatemala City’s first subway line.

Emigration: Guatemalans figure among the largest groups of migrants to the United States. Various factors fuel the emigration, including low economic opportunity, extortion, corruption among public officials and crime.

Crime: Proposals to emulate El Salvador’s crackdown on gangs reflect simmering discontent with levels of violent crime in Guatemala. The number of homicides in Guatemala rose in 2022 for the second consecutive year after a relative lull during the pandemic.

Polls are open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern, with results expected within hours of polls closing.

Given that neither of the two current candidates secured more than 20 percent of the vote in June, the runoff provides a chance for the winner to obtain a stamp of legitimacy. But the abstention rate, which was nearly 40 percent in the first round, will be closely watched by pro-democracy groups as a sign of broad disenchantment with Guatemala’s political system.


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