Guatemalans head to the polls on June 25 to pick a new president, as regional watchers warn of a downward spiral of kleptocracy and weakening rule of law in Central America’s most populous nation.
Social democrat Sandra Torres, the right-wing Zury Ríos and center-right Edmont Mulet lead the pack of more than 20 presidential hopefuls in the general elections.
Other candidates have been blocked from running, including leftist indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera, and most recently, former frontrunner Carlos Pineda – sparking accusations of political meddling against the country’s electoral court.
“One thing we can say about Guatemala right now is this Supreme Electoral Tribunal has a very suspicious pattern of eliminating any candidate who is publicly supportive of anti-corruption,” Will Freeman, a fellow in Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told CNN.
One of the expelled candidates, the rightwing Roberto Arzú, was a vocal critic of President Alejandro Giammattei. Another disqualified candidate, Cabrera, had been outspoken critic about corruption in Guatemalan politics.
Pineda ran as an outsider to Guatemala’s entrenched power structure, frequently sharing his anti-establishment position on Tik Tok. After his disqualification, he concluded on Twitter: “Corruption won, Guatemala lost.”
The Constitutional Court said in a statement to CNN that it adheres to the law, and acts with “due diligence, impartiality, objectivity, independence.” CNN has also reached out to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal for comment.
It’s not the first time that Guatemala’s electoral tribunal eliminates presidential hopefuls, but this year’s cycle is happening in rapidly shrinking civic space.
“The reason why it feels very important this year is because we’ve seen a real backlash in Guatemala over the past few years against a movement to battle corruption,” Caren Cissis, a central America expert and editor-in-chief of Americas Society/Council of the Americas, told CNN.
Failing battle against corruption
Rights groups say graft and impunity accelerated in the country after former President Jimmy Morales dissolved a United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission in 2019.
The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) had been set up in 2006 to help dismantle influential criminal networks in the country. It assisted in hundreds of convictions, exposed a corruption scandal, and has been attributed for helping reduce the country’s homicide rate.
Since CICIG’s removal, corruption has spread through the country’s justice system, experts say.
“A large part of Guatemala’s justice system has been co-opted by a network of corrupt political, economic, and military elites seeking to advance their own interests and carry out corrupt practices with impunity,” concludes a 2022 report by the Washington Office on Latin America, Latin America Working Group, and Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA.
Prosecutors and judges associated with CIGIG have been arrested, investigated, and many have been forced to flee the country under the country’s current President Alejandro Giammattei.
When the country’s attorney general Consuelo Porras Argueta was reappointed in 2022 by the president, she was sanctioned hours later by the US for “her involvement in significant corruption,” says Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, in a press statement.
“During her tenure, Porras repeatedly obstructed and undermined anticorruption investigations in Guatemala to protect her political allies and gain undue political favor,” the statement added.
Members of the media that took on corruption have also faced legal consequences. Prominent Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora – founder of the country’s leading investigative newspaper that was shut down this year – was sentenced to six years in prison for money laundering on Wednesday. Press rights groups have called it an attack on free speech.
Corruption and poor governance are important factors that drive migration, say experts, which is clearly in play in Guatemala – home to the largest economy in Central America yet the second-highest source country for migrants encountered at the US border, according US Border Patrol figures.
Giammattei’s press secretary rejected allegations that his administration was interfering in the judicial process. “The government of Guatemala respects and strives to guarantee freedom of journalism in the country,” Kevin López, Press secretary of the President Giammattei, said in a statement to CNN.
The US and Western allies have raised concerns about the exclusion of presidential candidates in Guatemala. But regional watchers speculate an excess of caution, a lack of focus on the Central American region and other foreign policy concerns have shifted priorities.
With migration a top concern in Washington as the US heads into the 2024 election cycle, Freeman said the Biden administration has had to balance Guatemala’s position as a regional ally, especially over efforts to curb migration, over concerns about democratic backsliding in the country. “The Biden administration has been caught between a rock and a hard place,”Freeman said.
In April, the US’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols stressed the US’s support for “Guatemalans’ right to free, fair, peaceful elections,” saying that democracy depended on citizens being able to choose leaders “without arbitrary barriers, exclusion, or intimidation.”
At least one of the remaining candidates appears willing to speak up about graft.
The 72-year-old centrist Mulet has taken a vocal anti-corruption stance in recent months. The technocrat, who has held legislative and diplomatic roles, including a stint at Guatemala’s ambassador to the United States, led United Nations bodies on Haiti and chemical weapons. His background has added to the sense that he is someone who could build on that experience in Guatemala, according to Carin Zissis, a central America expert and editor-in-chief of Americas Society/Council of the Americas.
He warned that Guatemala was marching towards an “authoritarian model” like Nicaragua, telling Agence-France Presse on Tuesday that Guatemala’s public institutions were “contaminated.
Analysts say the centrist, who has proposed universal pension and youth unemployment projects, looks in a strong position to advance to the second round of voting slated for August 20 as “he’s not seen as one of these deeply corrupt and entrenched machine politicians,” said Freeman.
He will have to beat Torres and Rios, who have both advocated for tough mano dura polices to tackle crime in the style of El Salvadorean leader Nayib Bukele.
Torres appears to be leading the pack, according to polling. She holds support among rural voters, garnered when she helped get more cash transfers and benefits when she was first lady alongside former President Álvaro Colom, say analysts. Despite heading one of the country’s oldest and well-resourced parties, “there is a hardcore, consolidated anti-vote” against her over her decision to divorce Colom in 2011, in a conservative, family-orientated country, Freeman said. Polls show nearly a third of the country will not vote for her.
Ríos is the daughter of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who was convicted of genocide in 2013. She is popular among Guatemala’s strong evangelical community while advocating for progressive causes like women’s rights. Ríos has denounced corruption during the race, with a focus on incumbent Giammattei. Although, analysts stress she holds the support of the country’s military and economic elite and she had previously condemned CICIG before it lost its mandate.
But it’s anyone’s guess as to whether any of these candidates will be able to address Guatemala’s erosion of rule of law once in power.
Commentators have lamented their proposals have been lacking and overly simplistic, said Zissis. “And as a result, in a country that has such big challenges, the question ends up being, what are these candidates going to do to solve the problems?”