Guatemala’s political turmoil deepens as one candidate is targeted and the other suspends her campaign

The government’s actions against Arévalo sparked objections from within and outside Guatemala. U.S. officials called them a threat to the country’s democracy

Presidential candidate for the National Unity of Hope (UNE) party Sandra Torres speaks during a press conference in Guatemala City, Guatemala, in this handout photo released on July 13, 2023.
Presidential candidate for the National Unity of Hope (UNE) party Sandra Torres speaks during a press conference in Guatemala City, Guatemala, in this handout photo released on July 13, 2023.UNIDAD NACIONAL DE LA ESPERANZA (via REUTERS)

Guatemala sank deeper into political turmoil Thursday as an effort by prosecutors to discredit a progressive presidential candidate prompted his conservative opponent to suspend her campaign, citing a playing field that was no longer even.

The government’s actions against candidate Bernardo Arévalo — first suspending his Seed Movement party, then raiding the country’s election tribunal offices after it certified election results — sparked other objections as well, from within and outside Guatemala. U.S. officials called them a threat to the country’s democracy.

By Thursday afternoon, those actions appeared to have backfired.

The Constitutional Court — Guatemala’s highest — granted a preliminary injunction to the Seed Movement, blocking its suspension. Meanwhile, candidates left and right warned the government to let the voters’ prevail. It was an outcome President Alejandro Giammattei likely did not expect when his administration decided to intervene in the June 25 election, which ended with Arévalo and conservative candidate Sandra Torres moving on to an Aug. 20 presidential runoff.

Arévalo dismissed the government’s actions as illegal.

“What they are trying to do is simply plant doubt about our honesty,” he told a news conference Thursday, adding that the raid and party’s suspension had a “clear political purpose.”

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal issued an angry statement declaring that it would safeguard Guatemala’s democracy in the face of “any attempt to interfere with the electoral process.”

Torres, whose UNE party has been a key force in allowing Giammattei to advance his legislative agenda, said she was halting her campaign activities to protest the government’s actions. It was likely that she realized Giammattei’s missteps could sink her own candidacy.

“We want to demonstrate our solidarity with the voters of the Seed party and also with those who came out to vote,” she said. “As a candidate, I want to compete under equal conditions.”

She called on the president to show his face.

Giammattei’s office issued a statement saying that it respects the separation of powers and would not be involved in any judicial processes. It also said that in line with the law, it would make presidential security available to the presidential and vice presidential candidates participating in the runoff. Giammattei is prohibited by Guatemalan law from seeking reelection.

Arévalo was a surprise winner in the June 25 election, garnering 11.7% of the votes. In the days before the vote, he had polled below 3% and was not among the top six or seven candidates, all of whom were considered to be on the conservative end of the political spectrum. Torres obtained 15.8% of the vote. No candidate came close to exceeding the 50% threshold necessary to win outright, necessitating the August runoff.

A former diplomat and academic, Arévalo has framed himself as the candidate who would bring change to the country, while portraying Torres as someone who would likely maintain the status quo.

Arévalo also promised to bring back prosecutors and judges who were critical to the nation’s fight against corruption but were forced out of the country under Giammattei’s administration.

As the wait dragged on for certification of the election, anxiety grew that the government was looking for a way to change the results. First, several losing parties waged a legal challenge, leading the Constitutional Court to suspend the certification and order a review of hundreds of challenged polling place tallies. The review concluded with no change in the results.

Then late Wednesday, anti-corruption prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche announced the Seed Movement’s suspension, an action that appeared to violate Guatemala’s election laws, which prohibit suspending parties during an ongoing election. Curruchiche said the party allegedly violated the law while gathering the signatures it needed to form.

The day began Thursday with prosecutors raiding the offices of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal just hours after it certified the election results. The Attorney General’s Office said Thursday that the purpose of the raid was to seize evidence from the office responsible for voter rolls and party registration. A raid had also been expected to take place at the Seed Movement’s party headquarters Thursday but that appeared unlikely after the high court’s injunction.

The U.S. State Department recently accused Curruchiche and his boss, Attorney General Consuelo Porras, of obstructing corruption investigations in Guatemala, and put them both on its list of undemocratic actors.

Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Thursday that the U.S. government was “deeply concerned” by the actions of the Attorney General’s Office, which he said threatened the legitimacy of the electoral process. “The will of the Guatemalan people, as expressed through the June 25 elections results, must be respected,” he said.

A United Nations spokesperson said Secretary General Antonio Guterres was watching developments in Guatemala with concern and urged all those involved to act responsibly and impartially.

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