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A Shock to Guatemala’s System

Almost no one thought that an underdog political reformer could defeat Guatemala’s corrupt political machine, but Bernardo Arévalo did just that. Now comes the hard part.

By Will Freeman and Lucas Perelló

August 2023

On August 20, Bernardo Arévalo, a centrist anticorruption reformer, won Guatemala’s presidential runoff by a wide margin, defeating his establishment rival, Sandra Torres, by more than 20 points. Arévalo claimed victory in eighteen of Guatemala’s 21 departments, dominating urban centers while also making inroads into Torres’ rural strongholds.

All told, the opposition win was a striking reversal of fortune for a country that seemed — until recently — to be on a one-way path toward democratic erosion, and for an electoral process that nearly saw Arévalo’s party barred from competing. Beating clientelist machine parties that backed his competitor is a feat in its own right. But now Arévalo and his party, Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement), face an even bigger challenge: governing for the first time, with control of only about a seventh of the seats in Congress, and enacting reforms that are likely to alienate a host of vested interests.

Democratic Springs and Winters

Semilla promises to usher in a “democratic spring,” harkening back to earlier periods of optimism and liberalization in Guatemalan history. For many voters, that’s exactly what has been lacking. In the 1940s, the country transitioned to democracy and elected Arévalo’s father, the political reformer Juan José Arévalo, as president. But the 1954 coup that ousted his successor, Jacobo Arbenz, marked a sudden end of Guatemala’s first “democratic spring.” A series of military dictatorships then ruled the country, and a civil war that raged until the mid-1990s left more than 200,000 dead.

Guatemala began holding regular elections again in the mid-1980s. But successive democratically elected governments failed to deliver. In 2019, right before the covid pandemic, more than half the country lived below the poverty line. Public officeholding became a lucrative business for politicians and the financiers of their campaigns. The UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which arrived in Guatemala in 2007 seeking to remedy the situation, exposed vast corruption by then-President Otto Pérez Molina and his vice-president, Roxana Baldetti.

Fed up with rampant corruption, Guatemalans rallied in the streets in peaceful protests in 2015, demanding and securing the resignations of Pérez Molina and Baldetti. During this second “democratic spring,” academics, intellectuals, and students formed an analysis group that led to the founding of Semilla. But the protests lacked leadership, and the president who succeeded Pérez Molina was worse, not better: Comedian-turned-politician Jimmy Morales backtracked on anticorruption promises and booted the CICIG from the country in 2019.

Semilla attempted to compete in that year’s presidential election, but Guatemala’s Constitutional Court blocked the party’s candidate. But this was the beginning, not the end, for Semilla. Entering Congress with seven legislators, one of whom later defected, the party emerged as virtually the sole voice of opposition to the government of President Alejandro Giammattei (2020–present). As Guatemala’s democratic backsliding accelerated, Semilla refused to craft alliances with the corrupt political establishment. Even more striking was that its leadership didn’t succumb to demagoguery and radicalism. On the contrary, the party built a moderate platform with broad appeal.

In the lead-up to the 25 June 2023 presidential and legislative elections, the establishment had clearly stacked the deck against the opposition. Elites who were invested in upholding the status quo continued using prosecutors and courts to eliminate potential threats. Courts disqualified six presidential candidates, including Carlos Pineda, a populist who briefly polled in first place, and vice-presidential candidate Thelma Cabrera, a left-wing indigenous leader who almost made the runoff in 2019. The courts also disqualified all the Congressional and local candidates from Pineda’s party.

Arévalo and his party remained in the race despite being critical of the status quo precisely because their fringe position and lack of resources didn’t pose a significant threat: Arévalo was polling below 5 percent going into the first round. Our interviews with political-party leaders ahead of the vote revealed a widespread sense of pessimism among members of the opposition.

It was thus a shock to everyone — voters, elites, and, above all, to Semilla — when on the night of June 25, Arévalo landed in second place with 11.8 percent of the vote, and Semilla more than tripled its legislative presence from 7 to 23 seats, making it the third-largest party in Congress.

The results of the first-round presidential vote were a shock to the system. Establishment political factions desperately tried to stop Arévalo from making it to the runoff. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal dragged its feet in ratifying the results. The infamous Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI) launched a series of probes into unsubstantiated claims of irregularities concerning Semilla’s legal status. Those efforts failed because Guatemalan law protected Semilla’s legal status ahead of the presidential runoff.

On the electoral front, Arévalo Semilla would have to face Sandra Torres in the second round. Torres, a former first lady and three-time presidential candidate, led the powerful National Unity of Hope (UNE), a former social-democratic party that had morphed into a conservative Christian party. Above all, the UNE is a clientelist party — the type that thrives in settings of poverty. Despite this, Semilla did the seemingly impossible: It stuck to its anticorruption guns, touring the country — even UNE’s rural strongholds — to deliver a message of hope instead of clientelist goods. The party’s strategy paid off: Arévalo won by a landslide, garnering 58 percent of the vote.

Big Promises, Bigger Obstacles

On election night in Guatemala City, the mood was ecstatic. But the following morning, several challenges to the president-elect were already taking shape. President Giammattei congratulated Arévalo on his win, but Sandra Torres had still not conceded defeat. Meanwhile, even as the Supreme Court reaffirmed its injunction blocking a criminal case from the public prosecutor’s office targeting Semilla and its leaders, all three criminal cases against the party remained open.

Still, Guatemala seems to have avoided the worst-case scenarios many had feared: massive election-day fraud, the rallying of an antidemocratic coalition bent on overturning the results, or a round-up of leading members of Semilla by police. The sheer margin of Arévalo’s win likely acted as a form of insurance against these outcomes.

Now comes the hard part. Since democratization nearly four decades ago, Guatemalan presidents have played by the same set of rules: buying votes in Congress, ceding public jobs to political brokers, and doling out public contracts to cement alliances and govern. But many in Guatemala — not least Semilla voters — see these practices as the root cause of the country’s ills — including, deficient social services and the capture of state institutions.

Arévalo and his party promised a factory reset of Guatemala’s democracy: no more corruption or under-the-table deals, even if it stirs up intense opposition, which it certainly will. The first “test of fire,” as one party leader put it to us in an interview, will be whether Semilla can staff the approximately 1,400 “strategic posts” in the executive branch that every incoming president must fill. Qualified technocrats are in short supply. Semilla leaders claim to have a sufficient shortlist to staff ministerial posts and associated secretariats, but not the lower levels of the bureaucracy, which they plan to fill by reviving the country’s much-neglected civil-service system and implementing meritocratic exams. In interviews with us, party leaders described a meritocratic civil service and reforms to make public contracting more competitive and transparent as more effective paths to curbing corruption than prosecutions. But it is unclear how the mechanics of merit-based hiring will work.

Arévalo’s triumph demonstrated that even given Guatemala’s history of clientelism, it’s possible to win a presidential race with the power of fresh messaging, fresh social-media campaigns, and fresh faces. In Congress, however, it’s another story. The legislative race gave parties with the biggest wallets and strongest clientelist networks control of the legislature: President Giammattei’s Vamos party, Torres’s UNE, and several smaller clientelist machines together control at least two-thirds of the seats. Rather than Guatemala’s most established business leaders or its military, it is these political blocs and their financiers among newly rich “emerging elites” — who are often tied to corruption and organized crime — who represent the biggest threat to Arévalo and Semilla’s agenda.  

These factions may take steps to reign in Arévalo even before his inauguration on 14 January 2024, if only to send the message that once in office, he will have no choice but to negotiate with them. Many expect that the Vamos-UNE blocs will seek to reduce the size of next year’s budget and to nominate judges to the high court who share their interests. Guatemala’s attorney general, Consuelo Porras — who was twice sanctioned by the U.S. State Department for shielding her political allies from investigation for corruption and is the architect of the criminal cases against Semilla — will remain in office, by law, until 2026. All Arévalo can do, as he acknowledges, is to ask for her resignation.

Semilla’s agenda consists not only of antigraft plans, but also proposals that seek to transform dysfunctional sectors of Guatemala’s economy that burden ordinary people with sky-high costs of living. Priorities for their first hundred days in government include passing an antitrust law. Guatemala is the only country in Central America without one, and it shows: Monopolies and oligopolies in profitable sectors abound. But trust-busting risks alienating members of the traditional private sector who until now have defended the democratic process. Semilla also aims to use executive authority to reduce the exorbitant costs of Guatemala’s privatized electric grid, and pass a legislative reform to cut the cost of medicines — a sector currently dominated by a small cartel of companies that engage in price-fixing. As it stands, keeping the lights on costs more than food for many families, and medicines cost 300 percent more than in neighboring Mexico and El Salvador.

It would be one thing if Semilla was all talk. Latin America, as of late, has seen no shortage of candidates who talk of anticorruption and “hope and change,” only to achieve very little of either. For various reasons, both Chile’s Gabriel Boric and Colombia’s Gustavo Petro have fallen far short of their expectations for themselves. But so far, Arévalo and his party really have played by the rules they profess, taking the highly unusual step of registering even the smallest in-kind campaign contributions with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal — in strict accordance with the law — and refusing to strike deals with corrupt factions in Congress. There is little reason to doubt that Arévalo and his government will try their hardest to make good on their promises — and that vested interests in Guatemala will pull out the stops to block them.

When it comes to dealing with legislative obstruction, Semilla appears to be of two minds: All party leaders we interviewed agreed that carrots were preferrable to sticks, and that they would first try to negotiate with opposition lawmakers on a one-by-one basis, promising them opportunities to share in the credit for popular reforms. But at the same time, they are split on using sticks. One Semilla leader told us that the executive would mount investigations of opposition lawmakers involved in corruption and narcotrafficking as a tool to break obstruction. But another insisted that such tactics would amount to the “extortionary” old way of doing politics, and were thus off the table. When push comes to shove, the Arévalo government will face tough decisions about how far its leaders are willing to go.

Guatemalan history tends to follow a pattern: Halting democratic advances, usually short-lived, are followed by drastic lurches in the opposite direction: The 1944–54 “democratic spring” ushered in by Arévalo’s father was snuffed out by the 1954 coup, and the 2015 “awakening” turned out to be the deceptively hopeful preface to years of democratic backsliding. Democratic gains were largely — but not completely — erased after each of these steps forward. Arévalo’s presidency might become another coda in this decades-long story of advances and reversals. But there is a chance that it instead breaks the cycle and durably improves governance in Guatemala.

As democracy quavers across Latin America, Guatemala could provide a much-needed glimpse of a freer, more prosperous future.

Will Freeman is Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Lucas Perelló is assistant professor of political science at Marist College.


Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy

Photo by LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images




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