September 28, 2023

Guatemala’s fight against corruption has come under international scrutiny due to electoral meddling

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — The Guatemalan government’s bumbling meddling in its presidential election has thrown a global spotlight on a country whose struggles with rampant corruption had received limited international attention.

President Alejandro Giammattei was deeply unpopular at home, but apart from occasional disapproving statements from the United States and Europe, he had managed to consolidate his control over the justice system with little consequence.

It was a dramatic transformation for a country that, until four years ago, supported an aggressive and prolific anti-corruption effort through the United Nations. But since that mission was enforced by Giammattei’s predecessor, the president had been systematically deploying loyalists to replace the prosecutors and judges who led the fight against bribery. Even those who had become critical of the diligent anti-corruption efforts now admit that the country is now much worse off.

Then came the June 25 presidential election, which shocked Guatemalans and outside observers. Heading into the vote, all polls indicated there would be a runoff between a narrow spectrum of candidates between the right and the far right.

But with the number of zero votes, many cast in protest, defeating all 22 candidates, Bernardo Arévalo of the progressive Seed Movement came in second, securing his entry into a second round on August 20. Suddenly there was a real choice for Guatemalans who want to change the status quo

Katya Salazar, executive director of the Due Process Foundation, said Arevalo’s surprise support was “a demonstration of the disaffection” in the Central American country and shook the entrenched power structure down to the president.

“I think that fear clouded him, blinded him, and I think he thought it would be the same as always,” Salazar said.

Late Wednesday, a federal prosecutor announced that the Seed Movement had been suspended for allegedly violating election laws when it was founded. Prosecutors followed up with a raid on the offices of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal on Thursday morning, just hours after it confirmed the election results that put Arévalo in the second round.

The uproar was immediate. In addition to expressions of concern from the United States, the European Union and the Organization of American States, criticism came from other Latin American governments and from Guatemala’s most powerful private business association.

Even Arévalo’s second opponent, the conservative Sandra Torres, joined in, announcing that she would suspend her campaign activities in solidarity because the competition was unequal while the authorities pursued the Seed Movement.

Torres’s UNE party has been a major force in enabling Giammattei to advance his legislative agenda, but it seems she feels the attack on the Seed party could undermine her own candidacy.

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

Not long after, the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest tribunal, struck another blow, granting the Seed Movement’s request for a preliminary injunction against the suspension of its legal status by a lower court. That quickly, albeit temporarily, eased tensions.

Giammattei, barred by law from re-election, remained out of sight. His office issued a statement saying it respected the separation of powers and would not be involved in any legal proceedings.

Hundreds protested in front of the Attorney General’s office in the afternoon.

“We are tired of corruption in Guatemala,” said Adolfo Grande, a 25-year-old repairman. “We want them to let us choose and not impose who they want.”

Dinora Sentes, a 28-year-old sociologist, said she supports the Seed Movement but protested in defense of Guatemala.

“It’s not about defending a party, it’s about defending an entire country,” she said. “We have so many needs in terms of education, healthcare and urgent needs.”

Arévalo thanked both the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which pledged to defend the will of voters against government interference.

“The corrupt who have tried to steal this election from the people are being marginalized today,” he said. “Today we start the first day of the campaign.”


Sherman reported from Mexico City.

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