Guatemala voters send two presidential candidates on opposite sides of political spectrum to a runoff

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal says that former first lady Sandra Torres for the conservative UNE party has 15.7% and Bernardo Arévalo of the leftist Seed Movement has 11.8%

Sandra Torres en una comparecencia ante la prensa el domingo en Ciudad de Guatemala
Sandra Torres, presidential candidate with the National Unity of Hope party (UNE) smiles during a press conference in Guatemala City, on June 26, 2023Moises Castillo (AP)

Guatemala voters sent two presidential candidates from opposite sides of the political spectrum to an Aug. 20 runoff, giving hope to many disenchanted citizens that change might be possible, according to preliminary results Monday. With 98% of the votes counted from Sunday’s election, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal said former first lady Sandra Torres for the conservative UNE party had 15.7% and Bernardo Arévalo for the leftist Seed Movement had 11.8%.

Irma Elizabeth Palencia Orellana, president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, said at a news conference Monday that the results were “practically unchangeable.”

Miguel Conde of the ruling VAMOS party sat in a distant third with 7.8%, ahead of the other 19 presidential candidates.

The two leaders didn’t come close to the 50% threshold needed to win in the first round. A cluster of other candidates hovered between 6% and 7% of the votes. There was 60% turnout, and nearly 1 million invalid ballots from a frustrated electorate led all the candidates, with nearly all ballots tallied.

Torres, watching the results from a downtown hotel conference room, told reporters that regardless of her opponent, she was ready for the runoff and “God willing, to be Guatemala’s first woman president.” She recognized the high number of invalid ballots and said it indicated people’s lack of confidence in the process.

But the real surprise was the Seed Movement, whose candidate Arévalo conceded the result surprised him, too.

At the central voting computation center, Arévalo said he would take the faith that voters showed in him on Sunday and use it “to pull the country out of the swamp” if elected.

“The results show the people are tired of the traditional political class,” Arévalo said.

The vote came amid Guatemala’s worrisome drift toward authoritarianism. Voters worried about security, education and jobs hoped that even if the next president didn’t represent the changes they hoped for, he or she would at least recognize the importance of the country’s institutions and halt the erosion that occurred under President Alejandro Giammattei, who could not seek re-election.

In four years, Guatemala went from an aggressive pursuit of networks of corrupt actors to a relentless persecution of the very prosecutors and judges who propelled it. More than two dozen justice figures have fled the country.

With them in exile, the government then turned its sights on other critical voices, including the media. Earlier this month, a tribunal sentenced newspaper founder José Rubén Zamora to six years in prison for money laundering, in what press freedom groups decried as Giammattei silencing a prominent critic.

As the presidential campaign got underway earlier this year, electoral authorities and courts kept three prominent candidates who had promised to disrupt the status quo — from both the left and right — off the ballot. Barred from participating, they called for their supporters to cast null ballots.

The stronger-than-expected showing by the Seed Movement — a progressive party whose candidate hadn’t been among leading candidates in most recent polls — was perhaps the biggest shock. Arévalo is the son of Juan José Arévalo, one of only two leftist presidents in Guatemala’s democratic era.

The elder Arévalo, who governed from 1945 to 1951, is credited with establishing foundational elements of Guatemala’s democracy that remain in place today, including its labor code and social security.

In 2019, the son won a seat in the congress for the Seed Movement, which he had helped found. He previously was a career diplomat, serving as Guatemala’s ambassador to Spain and a deputy foreign affairs minister in the administration of President Ramiro de León Carpio during the mid-1990s.

The Seed Movement is progressive, but with centrist tendencies making it difficult to place on the ideological spectrum, in part because it was founded by urban, mestizo intellectuals and academics like Arévalo who do not necessarily agree among themselves, said Ana María Méndez Dardón, Central America director at the Washington Office on Latin America, a U.S.-based human rights organization.

“It is not a group that is necessarily diverse in terms of really representing the Guatemalan population,” Méndez Dardón said. “We don’t see Indigenous candidates, Indigenous women, for example.”

Arévalo, 64, is a social democrat and campaigned on social justice themes as well as restoring the rule of law and separation of powers.

Andrea Fajardo, a 19-year-old veterinary student in the capital said Monday she voted for Arévalo and was thrilled with the election results. “A person so different has arrived who I feel represents hope for the country, for all citizens and all the young people who are staying here” rather than emigrating, she said.

This is the 67-year-old Torres’ third try for the presidency. She was first lady during the 2008-2012 presidency of social democrat Álvaro Colom, until they divorced in 2011.

Her running mate is a former evangelical preacher and they have pledged to maintain Guatemala’s strict anti-abortion law and other policies related to conservative family values. She promised during the campaign to increase support for the poor and improve security.

She has been Giammattei’s strongest ally in congress, marshalling her party’s votes to support him, something that earned her the distrust of many Guatemalans.

Torres was charged with campaign finance crimes in 2019 and jailed. She never went to trial, however, because the Constitutional Court ruled that she couldn’t be charged because of a legal reform approved with the support of her party.

Méndez Dardón, another analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, called Sunday’s results the most sweeping popular rejection of Guatemala’s direction since huge street protests in 2015 against President Otto Pérez Molina.

She said the high percentage of null votes reflected not just excluded popular candidates telling their supporters to vote that way, but also a considered vote from an electorate tired of corruption.

Conservative forces divided between various first-round candidates can be expected to coalesce behind Torres to try to block Arévalo from the presidency, Méndez Dardón said. But she said Torres generates a strong anti-vote that should help Arévalo.

If Arévalo should prevail in August, he would also face an opposition congress — it appears Torres’ party will have the second-largest bloc of lawmakers to Giammattei’s VAMOS party — that could make it tough going for Arévalo’s agenda.

“He is not going to have an easy path,” she said.

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