Unmaking a president: Guatemala’s people spoke, but will they have the final word? 

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Bernardo Arévalo is due to become president of Guatemala on January 14. But right now, that is still in doubt.

Global South World spoke to a lawyer who won a court decision backing the president-elect who explained why the battle is just beginning.

A lawmaker from Arévalo’s party tells GSW that allegations of impropriety are trumped up.

And a campaigner who promised to fight for what she believes is the democratic will of the Guatemalan people.

In the year 2023, presidential elections transpired in Argentina, Paraguay, Ecuador, and Guatemala. In the first three countries, the transition occurred seamlessly, and the newly elected presidents were already in office. In the fourth country Guatemala, there are still doubts over whether the elected president will assume office as planned this week.

On August 20, in the second round of elections, over 60% of Guatemalans elected Arévalo of the Semilla Movement, a young political party born out of the wave of anticorruption protests that toppled General Otto Pérez Molina’s government in 2015.

Arévalo and his modest party, whose primary platform was to combat the entrenched corruption in the country, barely registered above 3% in polls. Nevertheless, against all odds, they surpassed established figures of traditional politics, such as former First Lady Sandra Torres, or Zury Ríos, a right-wing icon and daughter of General Efraín Ríos Montt, who governed the country between 1982 and 1983.

Less than ten days before President-elect Bernardo Arévalo is set to assume office, his country is still not entirely certain that this will materialize. The Public Ministry accuses the Semilla Movement, the party with which Arévalo ran, of forging signatures of its affiliates before its foundation.

Additionally, they have pointed out irregularities in the vote-counting process and the procurement of software for electoral result disclosure.

Since August 20, Arévalo should have been preparing for his transition from President-elect to President. Instead, he has faced numerous attempts to thwart his ascent to power on January 14, when he should receive the presidential sash from the current incumbent, Alejandro Giammattei.

Prominent Guatemalan lawyer Edgar Ortiz explained to GSW that efforts to prevent the inauguration of the President-elect have been led by a coalition of parties that have governed for the past decade together with right-wing interest groups. Another powerful actor has joined these attempts: the Attorney General’s Office (Public Ministry; MP).

Two days before the second round, Arévalo’s main rival, Sandra Torres, suggested there were signs of fraud in the first round. “I insist that the media inquire with the TSE: why did they allow and hire digitalizers from Semilla? This is grave. I genuinely call on the OAS, which has been monitoring this investigation, and also on the Attorney General’s Office to investigate. What are we going to do for Guatemalan men and women? We are going to defend the vote, and we will not allow a single vote to be stolen,” she said after a campaign rally.

The coalition has urged the MP to accuse Movimiento Semilla of illegal financing and suspend it altogether, but these efforts bore no fruit. Subsequently, they opened a new front, Ortiz explained.

After three months of alleging irregularities in the records, on December 8, the MP declared electoral fraud and requested the complete suspension of the election results. They also sought the removal of immunity from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal magistrates, who currently operate from exile.

After declaring electoral fraud, the head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), Rafael Curruchiche, said that elections should be nullified and that they were going to present evidence of fraud to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE).

“We are not referring to the impact on a political party or a candidate. All parties and all candidates from all elections were affected. It is a scientific investigation, and it will be the TSE who will make the decision,” Curruchiche said to Prensa Libre, after civil society sectors accused the prosecutor’s office of interfering with the election of Bernardo Arévalo.

Ortiz contends that there were no solid pieces of evidence in the documents presented by the Attorney General’s Office. Furthermore, he explains that it does not have the authority to determine the outcome of an election or declare the existence of fraud. However, the faction does have the support of a number of judges who have expedited “express” arrest warrants.

Faced with these threats and the power of this coalition, Ortiz and other lawyers arranged the filing of a constitutional appeal before the Constitutional Court in early October. They requested the Court ensure the transition, respect the democratic process and defend the country’s Constitution. “If Arévalo did not assume power, that would already represent a constitutional rupture: a breakdown of electoral democracy, which is the most basic form of democracy,” he said.

On December 14, the court ruled in their favour and ordered a halt to attempts to obstruct the electoral outcome. Ortiz, the architect of the appeal that currently sustains the transition, believes that with the Constitutional Court’s decision, “the probability of Arévalo assuming office is 95%.” However, the battle does not end there and is not exclusively of a legal nature: ensuring the transition was a fundamental first step but not the only one.

The Battle on the Streets

Legal battles have been a crucial element for Guatemalans to witness the person they elected as president. However, it was not the sole front from which the fight has been waged in recent months.

Since the initial attempts by the Public Ministry to suspend the party or cast doubt on the election results, thousands of citizens have taken to the streets demanding the respect of their votes.

One of them is Andrea Reyes, who has participated in numerous demonstrations after witnessing “the little respect shown for the citizens’ will expressed at the polls.” This law student and women’s rights activist emphasizes the diversity that has protested in cities and conducted roadblocks and legal challenges for months. “This was a demonstration of citizens’ discontent with the illegal, blatant actions taking place by a group that refused to leave power, to accept electoral defeat through the ballot boxes,” she told GSW.

In her view, this mobilization in urban and rural areas was crucial in motivating lawyers to present numerous legal appeals.

While this young activist acknowledges that the Constitutional Court’s resolution keeps the electoral outcome alive, she believes the battle is not over.

“We know they still have many tricks up their sleeves, many strategies they can use, and surprise us with a new twist, but we also have the certainty that as citizens, we will continue the fight and continue with the resources we have, from lawyers, civil society, organized citizens – we will continue defending democracy in our country and the results we have chosen through the ballot boxes,” she told GSW.

Semilla’s fight

The President-elect Bernardo Arévalo is a sociologist, former diplomat, and son of Juan José Arévalo, a historic leader of the “democratic spring” of 1944 when Guatemalans overthrew Jorge Ubico, an iron-fist dictator who led the country for thirteen years.

Since his surprising victory on August 20, Arévalo has denounced in the streets, before local and international press, and to numerous international parties an attempted preemptive coup d’état and efforts to criminalize him personally.

Andrea Villagrán is a deputy in the National Congress, and in 2023 she secured re-election under Movimiento Semilla. She told GSW that “political persecution against Semilla has been evidenced in systematic attacks by the Public Ministry, which has used justice as a tool to try to prevent President-elect Bernardo Arévalo from assuming as the Constitutional President of the Republic.”

The Public Ministry, on its part, claims that more than 5,000 citizens have been illegally added to the party, including deceased individuals. Additionally, they assert that the party paid 7 quetzales (just under US$1) for each of the 25,000 signatures required to establish the party. This amounts to a total of 175,000 quetzales (approximately US$22,300), whose origin the Prosecutor’s Office is unaware of.

These allegations by the MP are baseless and the corresponding evidence has not been presented, Villagrán insists. These actions “seek to criminalize the leaders of the Semilla Movement,” whose “sole purpose is to undermine the electoral result since they intended to nullify the popular will expressed at the polls,” she adds.

According to the congresswoman, who will take office just hours before the President-elect, the Constitutional Court’s ruling is clear and mandates a government transition. However, she recalls that “those who have been constantly trying to undermine the constitutional and legal order of the country do not act in accordance with the law.”

In her opinion, the battle is not over, and the Congress she will be part of is also composed of “recycled actors from the coup movement and corrupt actors.”

Guatemala After January 14

If, as scheduled on Sunday, the 14th, at 2:00 p.m., Bernardo Arévalo is indeed sworn in as the new president of Guatemala, lawyer Edgar Ortiz explains that the new president will immediately face a new challenge: governing with a powerful attorney general against him.

In Guatemala, the lawyer elaborates, the Public Ministry is an autonomous government body, and the attorney general, Consuelo Porras, is legally protected from removal. “It’s not a discretionary decision of the president to remove her. That’s a problem for Arévalo,” Ortiz adds.

The President-elect has repeatedly and publicly asked her to resign, to no avail. On January 5, he announced a new attempt to do so. “I hope that Consuelo Porras resigns on the day I assume office, and I will reiterate it to her,” Arévalo said to local journalists.

Another fundamental challenge, according to Edgar Ortiz, is ensuring judges are held accountable to the Constitution rather than outside influences. He believes that decisions appearing to target critics of the incumbent government or threats to its power demonstrate a weakness in the independence of the judiciary.

For Ortiz, much is at stake. Beyond defending the rule of law, which he believes has for too long been only “an ideal of intellectual elites,” the new president must deliver tangible results to a country with 55% of its population below the poverty line and 46% of children suffering from chronic malnutrition. “People are tired and want changes,” Ortiz points out.

However, the new president will have only 23 deputies out of 160 seats in Congress and will have to contend with a powerful bloc that has sought to thwart his mandate. If Arévalo fails, Ortiz’s prediction for the country is somber: “That will be the main input for authoritarianism and for the entire mafia coalition that did not want him to win. The future of Guatemala’s democracy depends on Arévalo being a good statesman.”

While Arévalo and a significant portion of civil society hope for the new president to be sworn in without new surprises, on January 5, the head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, Rafael Curruchiche, appealed the Constitutional Court’s resolution ordering a guarantee of the transition. Additionally, another congressman, Rudio Lecsan Mérida, asked this court to prevent the installation of what he sees as an illegitimate government.

Less than ten days before the new president’s inauguration, certainty is still elusive in Guatemala.

GSW attempted to obtain the Public Ministry’s stance on this transition and tried to request an interview via email and a WhatsApp account listed on the institution’s website. At the time of publication, there has been no response.

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