A Watershed Moment for Guatemala’s Democracy? Part 2

Guatemala’s 2023 electoral process will most likely dodge a bullet, and the presidential runoff election between Bernardo Arévalo of SEMILLA (Movimiento Semilla) and Sandra Torres of UNE (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza) will take place on August 20, 2023. The runoff campaign itself will be highly polarized, and in the broader picture, there are huge challenges ahead for governability in the short-run and for Guatemala’s democracy in the long-run.


Source: La Hora.

The efforts to block the SEMILLA party from participating in the runoff election continued in Guatemala, with no end in sight. On July 21, the offices of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) were raided by the Attorney General’s Office for a second time, as were the headquarters of SEMILLA. On July 22, the Constitutional Court denied a request from the TSE to protect it against several government offices but reaffirmed that the runoff election must take place on August 20 with the two parties that obtained the majority of the vote. 

Guatemala’s 2023 electoral process will most likely dodge a bullet, and the presidential runoff election between Bernardo Arévalo of SEMILLA (Movimiento Semilla) and Sandra Torres of UNE (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza) will take place on August 20, 2023. The runoff campaign itself will be highly polarized, and in the broader picture, there are huge challenges ahead for governability in the short-run and for Guatemala’s democracy in the long-run.

A Polarized Runoff Campaign

Although the certification of the runoff election winners was on hold for almost three weeks, and candidates were not allowed to campaign during that political standoff, the social media campaign by followers or detractors of both candidates began in full force the day after the election, with peculiar ruthlessness, even for Guatemalan standards. The social media campaign against Arévalo has been particularly vicious and misleading, accusing him of endangering the future of Guatemalans because of communism or for promoting the LGBTQ agenda (Arévalo has strongly denied the accusations).

One of the first challenges in this election is the legitimacy of the candidates themselves. Both candidates obtained a low percentage of the total vote in the first-round election. According to Guatemalan analyst Rodolfo Mendoza, the 15.8 percent obtained by Torres and the 11.8 percent obtained by Arévalo are the lowest ever for the top two candidates in the first-round of the ten presidential elections that have taken place since 1985. Furthermore, if one takes into account that there are 9.3 million registered voters, Torres’ 881,592 votes represent around 9 percent of the registered voters, while Arévalo’s 654,534 votes represent 7 percent of the registered voters (3,692,521 registered Guatemalans abstained on June 25). Both candidates are expected to increase their public support in the runoff election, but their original legitimacy is extremely low.

Another important challenge is that more than in the previous nine elections, Guatemalans face the runoff profoundly polarized and divided. There is a rural-urban divide that became very clear in the first-round election on June 25. Arévalo won handily in the urban centers across the country, particularly the capital city, while Torres swept in the rural areas. This pattern is likely to be replicated in the runoff election.

There are other splits, even within urban areas: there is a divide between religious and non-religious Guatemalans, with the latter leaning towards Arévalo—even between religious Guatemalans themselves (Catholics and Evangelicals comprise almost 90 percent of Guatemalans, with an even split). Evangelicals are likely to lean towards Torres because her running mate is a former Evangelical pastor, and some Evangelical pastors have openly asked their followers to avoid voting for SEMILLA. On the other hand, the Catholic Church has called for respecting the electoral process without taking sides.

A class divide or a generational divide is not evident at this time. However, Guatemalan analysts believe that young urban Guatemalans were a key constituent for Arévalo in the first round. It is relevant to remember that SEMILLA emerged after the 2015 anti-corruption protests as an urban party formed by young professionals—which is still part of their appeal in urban areas.

A more thorough analysis of the demographic variables influencing voting behavior can’t be performed since exit polls are not normally used in Guatemala. However, survey data from Vanderbilt University’s Latin America Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) can shed some light on Guatemalans’ perspectives about some of the key issues that are proving to be relevant in this runoff campaign. Figure 1 shows that most Guatemalans are highly religious—83 percent of them indicated that religion plays a vital role in their lives. The figure also shows that 73 percent of Guatemalans believe that the majority of politicians are corrupt. Lastly, the figure indicates that only 16 percent of Guatemalans approve of homosexuals running for office, which is one of the lowest scores in Latin America.


Figure 1. Relevant Issues That May Play a Role in Guatemala’s 2023 Runoff Election



Ideology is also an interesting variable in this election. Both candidates are declared Social Democrats (center-left in the political spectrum). Still, Torres has switched to a socially conservative discourse in 2023 to attract conservative voters while trying to keep her appeal among rural voters. Arévalo’s vote in the first round was not ideological but rather a vote of rejection against the corrupt political establishment. Yet, the extreme right has tried to frame this election as an ideological battle. LAPOP surveys have shown that a significant majority of Guatemalans place themselves at the center of the political spectrum, as demonstrated in Figure 2.


Figure 2. Distribution of Ideology in Guatemala by Age



The survey data presented above suggests that in the runoff, Arévalo would have to emphasize the fight against corruption, and this would give him an upper hand against Torres, who is perceived—especially in urban areas—as part of the alliance of the corrupt. Also in his favor is the symbolism of the fact that Arévalo is the son of a reformist president Juan José Arévalo (1945-1951), who many Guatemalans remember positively—although at the same time, this may play against him with people on the right who still, up to the present time, mistakenly associate him with communism. Lastly, while the legal attacks on Arévalo’s party may backfire and generate him support, his detractors may succeed, creating doubt about SEMILLA among citizens who are unaware of the complex legal details.

On the other hand, Torres has in her favor name recognition, especially in rural areas. She was first lady (2008-2011), this is her third time running for president (she lost the runoff elections in 2015 and in 2019), and she retains a country-wide party structure with UNE, something that SEMILLA lacks. Unlike the previous two elections, her switch to social conservatism could effectively attract urban voters this time around, given that she may be deemed as a less threatening candidate in a highly religious and socially conservative society like Guatemala (as Figure 1 shows).  

At the end of the day, the vote on August 20 will not be a vote for a political party. LAPOP data shows that less than 10 percent of Guatemalans sympathized with a party in 2019 (one of the lowest percentages in Latin America), but it will be a vote for two individuals who represent change or continuity. Those who chose Arévalo will likely be the ones who are fed up with the high levels of corruption in the Guatemalan political system and long for a change—even if some are socially conservative. Those who chose Torres will be the ones who are highly religious or staunchly conservative and prefer to continue the status quo rather than risk a change, as well as those citizens in rural areas who are lured by clientelism or remember Torres’ social assistance programs as former first lady.

Furthermore, it is hard to predict abstention, the null, or blank votes. The confusion created by the legal entrapments may discourage voters from going to the polls on August 20 (turnout in the runoff, which has always been lower than in the first-round election, holds a 45 percent average). Likewise, the harshness of the campaign could also discourage participation in the runoff election or again trigger null or blank voting. Nonetheless, it may well be that the attempts to derail the election spark unusual turnout.

In general, this is an election that is hard to predict, and polls—as they did in the first round—may again miss the target given the emotional rollercoaster that Guatemalans have experienced since the June 25 election.

What are the Chances for Reverting Democratic Erosion?

Once the new president takes office on January 14, 2024, two things will be on the table: governability in the next four years and the long-term prospects for democracy in Guatemala. In terms of governability, if Arévalo wins, political power would be dispersed between the Executive and the Legislative powers. He would face stiff opposition in Congress, where parties affiliated with the alliance of the corrupt will have a majority of the 160 seats in the unicameral Congress. Arévalo’s party obtained 23 seats in the congressional election and perhaps could find support in other progressive and moderate parties, which would give him around 50 seats. However, it will be difficult for him to do things as simple as getting the national budget approved.

If Torres wins the runoff, political power would be concentrated. She would run the Executive and could also control Congress through the 28 seats of her UNE party in alliance with establishment parties that obtained an important number of seats in Congress. This could be done with the incumbent party VAMOS (39 seats) and VALOR/Unionista (12 seats), plus a number of smaller conservative parties. She would find it much easier than Arévalo to enact her agenda without needing to negotiate with the minority parties. Since these three parties have in the past four years been supportive of the alliance of the corrupt, under a Torres presidency the status quo would be likely to continue—unless she were to reverse course and disentangle her party from the establishment.

In terms of reversing democratic erosion, Guatemala faces an uphill battle. The alliance of the corrupt has done immense damage to the weak institutionality in the country—which was weak even prior to the current Giammattei administration. Guatemala was downgraded from an electoral democracy in 2019 to an electoral autocracy in 2022 by the V-Democracy Index. Still, it was already considered a low-performance electoral democracy by organizations such as IDEA International long before Giammattei came to power.

Assuming that Torres continues her alliance with the establishment parties, her presidency would not contribute to counter democratic erosion. Guatemala may have a better chance of beginning to reverse democratic backsliding under an Arévalo presidency, but his options are limited. The road to reestablishing judicial independence and other important features of democracy will be challenging for him because, in addition to Congress, other key institutions such as the Attorney General’s Office, the Supreme Court, and the Constitutional Court will still be dominated by the establishment. Additionally, SEMILLA only won one of 337 municipal governments in the June 25 election, whereas the ruling party VAMOS obtained 131 and UNE won 38. Therefore, power at the local level will not be in his favor either.

Lastly, another lasting consequence of the bumpy 2023 electoral process will be the Guatemalan population’s perspective of democracy and its institutions. According to LAPOP data from 2021, only 52 percent of Guatemalans supported democracy, one of the five countries in Latin America with the lowest support. Additionally, trust in the institutions of representative democracy hovered below the average for Latin America. The power struggle between institutions in the past few weeks will likely decrease that trust even further. In conclusion, it is difficult to predict at this point whether the result of the runoff election will imply a watershed moment for Guatemala’s democracy or the continuation of the questionable political system that existed before June 25.

Dinorah Azpuru is a Professor of Political Science at Wichita State University. She has published extensively about democracy in Latin America. She served as Director of Vanderbilt University Latin America Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) for Guatemala for several years. She was Secretary General of the Commission for Electoral Reform derived from the Peace Accords in Guatemala.

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