Guatemalans prepare to vote in troubled presidential election

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Guatemala’s presidential runoff on August 20 will see a former first lady compete against the son of a former president, capping a troubled race that has worried observers about the country’s future as inequality and corruption drives political turbulence throughout the region.

Sandra Torres, largely seen as continuity candidate for the political establishment, will run against the anti-corruption candidate Bernardo Arévalo – who defied predictions with his second-place finish in the first round of voting in June.

Torres won 16% of the first-round vote in June with Arévalo coming in with 11.8% of the votes cast. Still, more than 24% of voters cast blank or invalid votes and about 40% of registered voters abstained, which analysts have attributed to high levels of disenchantment with Guatemala’s electoral system after the state disqualified opposition candidates who spoke out against corruption.

As an outsider candidate, Arévalo’s surprise run in the second round has reinvigorated this year’s presidential cycle, which has been plagued by allegations of government interference and fears of democratic backsliding.

Guatemala watchers are cautiously hopeful that the popular will might prevail.

Why has the race been so turbulent?

Rights groups say graft and impunity accelerated among the country’s political class after a United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission, known as CICIG, credited for assisting in hundreds of convictions, was dissolved in 2019. Prosecutors and judges associated with the commission were arrested, investigated, and many have been forced to flee the country in the ensuing years amid high rates of poverty and malnutrition.

Worries about democratic backsliding began to mount in this year’s election cycle as anti-corruption candidates were barred from running, prompting widespread criticism from the US and Western allies.

Arévalo, who previously served as ambassador to Spain, has also faced attempts to disqualify him. A Guatemalan court suspended his Movimiento Semilla party on the request of Rafael Curruchiche, who heads the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity and is on the US State Department Engels list for “corrupt and undemocratic actors.”

Curruchiche said they were investigating Movimiento Semilla for allegedly falsifying citizens’ signatures – a claim Arévalo has denied.

But he was ultimately allowed to run in the first round following international outcry by the US, European Union and a group of international donors, known as the G13, which includes the United Kingdom and Canada. Even Torres announced she would suspend her political campaign in solidarity with Movimiento Semilla.

Who are the candidates?

Unemployment, corruption, and high living costs are at the top of voters’ minds as they head to the polls on August 20. “Guatemalans want to replace this broken political system that no matter what candidates say they end up doing the same things in office,” Freeman said.

Torres has pledged to expand the country’s social programs and has advocated for tough policies to tackle crime in the style of Nayib Bukele, the president of neighboring El Salvador. She holds support among rural voters, garnered when she helped get more cash transfers and benefits as first lady more than a decade ago.

The 67-year-old heads one of the country’s largest political parties, Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), and served as the country’s first lady alongside her ex-husband, the center-left former President Alvaro Colom, from 2008 to 2011.

This is the third presidential cycle Torres has competed in, losing in 2019 to current President Alejandro Giammattei. Her time in the spotlight has made her one of the most recognized names in the political race, although many Guatemalans have indicated they will not vote for her.

Current momentum appears to be behind the former diplomat. Arévalo is seen as a pragmatist from the center-left Movimiento Semilla party, which he co-founded in 2017, and may be able to tap into widespread discontent against the current political class. His father, Juan José Arévalo, was Guatemala’s first democratically elected president in 1945 and is fondly remembered for creating the country’s social security system.

Tackling corruption is his first order of business, according to his 100-day plan if voted into power. Arévalo appears less interested in prosecuting corrupt actors and more focused on doing away with pork barrel spending, Freeman says. “The theory is more that you need to fix corruption at the source and stop public contracts from being awarded in a non-competitive way.”

He has promised to bring back the journalists, judges and prosecutors who fled the country in the wake of the government shutting down CICIG – this includes his party’s former presidential contender, Thelma Aldana, known for her anti-corruption crusades that led to the conviction of a former president. Aldana was barred from running in the 2019 race.

Guatemala currently recognizes Taiwan, and Arévalo has said he would like Guatemala to have relations with both Taipei and Beijing.

Guatemala’s business elite have warmed to him, with Duolingo Chief Executive Luis Von Ahn announcing on X that he had contributed $100,000 to his campaign.

Congress is set to be largely controlled by establishment parties following this year’s elections, including the outgoing president’s Vamos party and Torres’ UNE. Even if Arévalo does win at the polls Sunday, there may be many more hurdles to come.

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