Will the elected president of Guatemala take office?

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Guatemala President-elect Bernardo Arevalo waves during a protest in support of democracy and to demand a peaceful democratic transition of power, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, December 7, 2023. REUTERS/Cristina Chiquin/ File Photo

When the anti-corruption advocate Bernardo Arevalo secured a resounding victory in Guatemala’s presidential election in August 2023, citizens flocked to the capital of the most populous Central American country to celebrate. However, as Arevalo’s opponents escalate their efforts to prevent the president-elect from assuming office in a few weeks, the atmosphere on the streets has shifted.

Arevalo defeated former first lady Sandra Torres in the second round of the 2023 presidential election and will be inaugurated as the 52nd president on 14 January 2024.

Indigenous protesters, camped in front of the attorney general’s office, are calling for her resignation, alleging that she is targeting Arevalo with investigations prepared after his unexpectedly strong electoral performance. Government buildings are covered in graffiti condemning prosecutors who dismantled a significant anti-corruption campaign. Riot police remain on high alert as tensions simmer.

In a region already on edge due to the adoption of authoritarian tactics limiting democratic freedoms, not only in Guatemala but also in neighbouring Nicaragua and El Salvador, analysts argue that the aggressive assault against a democratically elected leader, aiming to obstruct a smooth transfer of power, indicates a country teetering on the brink of a political crisis.

Arevalo, an Israeli-educated sociologist and the most progressive candidate since Guatemala restored democracy in 1985, remains optimistic about assuming office but acknowledges formidable obstacles. He observes a shift in coup strategies from the 20th century involving tanks and soldiers to the 21st century, where coups are executed through members of Congress and lawyers, masquerading under the guise of institutional continuity.

The warning signs for Guatemala’s fragile democracy emerged when Arevalo, the son of former President Juan Jose Arevalo, who is revered for creating Guatemala’s social security system and safeguarding free speech, barely made it to a runoff earlier in the summer.

Promptly, a prosecutor moved to suspend Arevalo’s party, Movimiento Semilla (The Seed Movement). Subsequently, after his decisive victory in August, judicial authorities and members of Congress expanded their campaign against the president-elect and his allies. The recent days have seen heightened efforts to strip Arevalo of immunity and potentially nullify the election results, setting the stage for his arrest and disrupting the scheduled power transfer in mid-January.

Leonor Morales, the prosecutor leading the latest efforts against Arevalo, accuses Semilla of using fraudulent signatures to register as a political party, claiming it was born through corrupt and illegal actions. This push to invalidate Arevalo’s party, and potentially the election outcome, is seen as an alliance of conservative prosecutors and Congress members consolidating and protecting their power.

Amid the standoff, Arevalo’s supporters confront authorities in parts of Guatemala’s capital, fighting to preserve the dwindling democracy. Fears mount over potential measures Arevalo’s adversaries might take to prevent him from assuming office. Recent events include magistrates fleeing the country after Congress stripped them of immunity, and a budget approval limiting Arevalo’s spending on education and healthcare. Allegations of bribery in favour of anti-Arevalo deals have surfaced, heightening concerns about the erosion of democratic processes in Guatemala.

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