The attempt to exclude the candidacy headed by Bernardo Arévalo from the second round of presidential elections in Guatemala has triggered alarms among the democratic forces of the Central American country. Representatives of the political opposition, jurists, international organizations, and the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden have rejected the court decision delivered Wednesday that disqualified the progressive Seed Movement, which obtained 12% of the votes in the elections on June 25, from the process. Arévalo’s party filed an appeal against the ruling and the Constitutional Court has granted a provisional injunction, which for the time being ensures Arévalo’s participation in the second round of voting. At the same time, the Electoral Tribunal on Thursday requested that the Constitutional Court’s ruling be rescinded and the call for the presidential runoff, set for August 20, maintained. Until the Constitutional Court answers that petition, the threat of the party’s disqualification persists. Arévalo’s center-left Seed Movement emerged in the heat of the 2015 protests against an institutional drift in Guatemala and now faces a criminal case for the alleged falsification of signatures of party affiliates promoted by Rafael Curruchiche, a prosecutor who has been sanctioned by the United States over allegations of corruption.
Guatemala is still one step away from a technical coup, in the opinion of former foreign minister Gabriel Orellana: “A crude one, but a coup nonetheless,” the lawyer said. Orellana reached his conclusion after examining the judge’s order that seeks to incapacitate Arévalo, who has filed a writ before the Constitutional Court to try to prevent the electoral authorities from carrying out an “illegal and unconstitutional” provision. To comply with the order of a judge who is interfering in the functions of the Electoral Tribunal is a breach of fundamental law, according to jurists consulted by EL PAÍS. It is also illegal, because no party can be suspended during an electoral process. In this context, according to most analysts, the attempt to exclude Arévalo from the electoral process is designed to engineer a second round between the conservative former first lady, Sandra Torres, and a pro-government candidate, Manuel Conde, who represents President Alejandro Giammattei’s conservative Vamos formation and came third in the opening round of voting with 7.83%.
Guatemala’s electoral law prohibits the suspension of political parties between when an election is called and when it is held. With a second round of voting required because no candidate exceeded 50% of the vote, it appeared that Arévalo’s party could not be suspended.
Curruchiche, an anti-corruption prosecutor, said that Seed Movement had been suspended based on a May 2022 complaint from a citizen who reported that his signature was falsely added to the signature gathering effort of Arévalo’s party. After graphological studies, it was concluded that “the signature and handwriting were falsified,” Curruchiche said in a video statement, which was released while the country was waiting for the results of the vote to be ratified.
Concern over the political turmoil in Guatemala has extended to the U.S. State Department, which said that the country’s democracy was at risk. Department spokesman Matthew Miller stated 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.” In Guatemala, candidates on both the left and the right warned the government to let the voters prevail.
It was an outcome Giammattei likely did not expect when his administration decided to intervene in the June 25 election, which ended with Arévalo and Torres moving on to the August 20 presidential runoff. Torres, whose National Unity of Hope (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.”
Arévalo dismissed the government’s actions as illegal and said he would file complaints against the lower court judge, attorney general and special prosecutor for trying to keep him out of the race. “What they are trying to do is simply sow doubt about our honesty,” he said at a news conference Thursday, adding that the raid and party’s suspension had a “clear political purpose.” 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 of corruption and authoritarianism that has deepened under the Giammattei government. More than a hundred judicial figures, human rights defenders and journalists are in exile, while other former anti-corruption officials have been imprisoned, such as former prosecutor Virginia Laparra, whom Amnesty International has declared a “prisoner of conscience.”
In this context of authoritarian drift, more than 5.5 million Guatemalans went to the polls on June 25 and decided that the social-democratic UNE candidate, Torres (15%), and Arévalo (12%) would compete for the presidency in the second round. During the pre-campaign, three candidates with a chance of reaching the runoff were excluded by judicial decisions widely criticized as arbitrary and opportunistic. This was the case, for example, of the rancher Carlos Pineda: when he moved to the top of the polls, former congressman Manuel Baldizón, who served a sentence in the United States for money laundering, filed a legal action to remove him from the race.
Arévalo caused a shock by capturing 12% of the vote, an outcome that neither the polls nor analysts had predicted. That put the Seed Movement in the sights of the so-called “Corrupt Pact,” which is attributed with aligning to maintain control of the institutions and appointed by Giammattei or the alliance of deputies who hold a majority in Congress, and who respond to the interests of the president or of the ruling party. This pact is an “informal alliance of politicians, a bureaucratic elite, and businessmen, plus some representatives of criminal networks,” says former foreign minister and political analyst Edgar Gutiérrez.
Thus, without a single tank in the streets or violence, a coup that is both “sophisticated” and “crude” has begun in Guatemala, Orellana told EL PAÍS. Like the former foreign minister, dozens of jurists took to social networks to present their legal arguments, which reached a unanimous conclusion: the disqualification of a party with a second electoral round in progress is illegal, unconstitutional and puts Guatemala on the verge of a kind of technical coup d’état.
Business collectives, social organizations, national and foreign electoral observers, students, and citizens also used social media to condemn what they consider an outrage generated by the Attorney General’s Office and which found in Judge Fredy Orellana the necessary endorsement to place Guatemala’s fragile democracy at risk.
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