The Political Situation in Guatemala – Pre Election Edition  

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In June 2023, amid a decline in the protections for human rights, Guatemala will have general elections for the positions of president, legislators, and mayors.  

These elections are vital for Guatemala’s delicate democracy and will be held in an environment where the rule of law is deteriorating and where overseeing institutions lack independence.

In this blog, we will give a short overview of the political situation in Guatemala and how the election process works. We will also outline the key presidential candidates and express our thoughts regarding the upcoming elections.

What is the current political situation in Guatemala?

indigenous voter
Indigenous voters in Guatemala from the previous election

Guatemala has a recent history of political instability due the 36 year civil war ending in 1996. This prolonged conflict, built on an older history of Spanish Colonization has undeniable effects on the political system and culture today.

The democracy in Guatemala is in grave peril. In an effort to avoid taking responsibility for the pervasive high-level corruption, the authorities have eroded institutional checks on the abuse of power and protections for human rights. Additionally, the Attorney General’s Office has brought false criminal charges against independent reporters, prosecutors, and judges who have looked into and revealed cases of corruption, human rights abuse, and abuse of authority.

Since Jimmy Morales, the former president of Guatemala, expelled the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in 2019, efforts to undermine institutional safeguards against the abuse of power have risen. Since then, a network of dishonest political, business, and military elites has taken control of a sizable portion of Guatemala’s court system.

Press and Civil Society Targeting

Several journalists, including José Rubén Zamora, the editor of the now closed “El Periódico”, is still incarcerated. He and others have been the targets of what appear to be politically motivated criminal investigations. 

Since President Alejandro Giammattei’s administration began in 2020, the Journalists’ Association of Guatemala has documented over 400 instances of attacks, harassment, and criminalization of media professionals. In 2022 alone, there were over 100 of these occurrences.

The administration has also attacked civil society organizations. A new law with stringent guidelines for nongovernmental organizations operating in the nation went into effect in July 2021. Additionally, the government did nothing to stop or look into violent assaults on Indigenous and human rights advocates.

How does the Electoral Process Work?

woman voting
Source: SpotUs

On a national level, elections in Guatemala include those for the president and the legislature. The people of Guatemala elect the president and vice president to four-year terms on a single ballot. The constitution forbids reelection and specifies a four-year presidential term.

The only election that can go to a second round is the presidential race. If no candidate wins at least 50% of the presidential vote, the top two finishers will go on to the second round, which will take place on August 27.

The 158 members of the Congress of the Republic are chosen for a four-year term in a combination of proportional representation and multi-member departmental constituencies, both of which follow the D’Hondt system.

Who are the Main Candidates?

There are 23 presidential candidates in the race however the below gives a summary of the frontrunners according to a survey from CID Gallup.

Carlos Pineda, Roberto Arzú, and Thelma Cabrera, had previously performed well in the polls but all were disqualified by the courts in controversial rulings. While Cabrera has exhausted all of his appeal options, Pineda and Arzú are still appealing.

Edmond Mulet

Mulet
Mulet is one of the frontrunners Source:Yovotemejor

Mulet has a lengthy career as a diplomat and has held several important UN positions. In 2019, he ran for president after serving as a centrist congressman for 12 years. He received 11% of the first-round vote.

His Platform

By reducing state bureaucracy and creating a new anti-corruption apparatus with support from the international community, he has suggested combating corruption. He has also suggested increasing police pay and giving the military forces some police responsibilities.

Pros

He is aware of how the government functions. This reputation was strengthened by his work with the UN. His roles include; Head of the Stabilization Mission in Haiti , and Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations in Syria. He has maintained professional distance from the current corruption scandals that rocked Guatemala due to his lengthy career internationally.

Cons

Mulet is commonly regarded as a product of the conventional party system, which is distrusted by the majority of the populace. In the 1980s, he also participated in a contentious global adoption program as a young lawyer. He claims he did nothing wrong. Because the Public Prosecutor’s Office (MP) is looking into Mulet on suspicion of conspiring to obstruct justice, the TSE might also rule against him. 

Zury Ríos

rios
Rios is another favorite but her father’s reputation may not work in her favor Source:YVM

From 1995 through 2012, Ríos served in Congress. She ran for president in 2015, placing third, and was a front-runner in 2019 until she was disqualified due to a constitutional ban on relatives of coup leaders running for office, which has since been overturned in her case. Her father, the late General Efran Ríos Montt, took control of the country in a coup in 1982 and was found guilty of orchestrating genocide while serving as president in 2013. Later, the conviction was overturned.

Her Platform

Against gangs, as well as those engaged in territorial disputes and disruptive protests, Ríos would probably use a very aggressive security posture. She would advocate for policies that backed conservative evangelical viewpoints on subjects like abortion. Her supporters include Evangelicals, and proponents of El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s hardline security plan—of which Ríos has spoken highly.

Pros

President Alejandro Giammattei, who has an approval rating of under 30%, has a well-known opponent in Ríos. She has avoided politics since leaving Congress and has done so while running for president, giving her the opportunity to establish herself as an outsider. She took relatively liberal stances on issues like discrimination against women and those with HIV while serving in Congress. 

Cons

She has consistently expressed support for her divisive father. In addition, she denounced the CICIG anti-corruption group before its dissolution in 2019.

Sandra Torres

Torres
Torres is a previous first lady and came close to the presidency in 2019. Source:YVM

In both 2015 and 2019, Torres campaigned for president and received the most votes in the first round but came in second. She served as first lady from 2008 to 2011 with the center-left former president Álvaro Colom. Colom led the establishment of the CICIG anti-corruption body in Guatemala but was also the target of numerous corruption investigations. He died in January 2023.

Her Platform

Torres is likely to somewhat strengthen Guatemala’s social safety net and increase municipal resources to address problems like hunger. She is viewed as unlikely to take a tough stance against alleged party system corruption.

Pros

As first lady, Torres worked to establish well-liked social initiatives. She is the leader of the biggest and most well-run political party in the nation and is well-known. 

Cons

Torres is a member of Guatemala’s political elite at a time when they are not well-liked. Several recent investigations into corruption have focused on her party. Additionally, she is thought to be linked to President Giammattei, who is currently involved in a number of corruption issues. 

Pending Possible Candidates

The following two candidates were disqualified by Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Court (TSE). Both campaigns are appealing their disqualifications, and the outcome of the court case will determine whether or not they may run in the elections.

Roberto Arzú

Arzu
Arzú’s campaign was ruled ineligible by the supreme court in May 2023. (Source: Prensa Libre: Esbin García)

Arzú is the son of Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen, who served as Guatemala City’s mayor for five terms (1986–90 and 2004–18) and as president from 1996–2000. Using the Trump-inspired campaign slogan “Let’s Make Guatemala Great,” he campaigned for president in 2019 and came in fifth. He is an entrepreneur whose ventures have included restaurants, soccer fields, and medications. In addition, he oversaw the renowned soccer team Comunicaciones FC from 1994 to 2006.

His campaign was ruled ineligible by Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Court in February 2023. This was due to alleged early campaigning, inability to pay a $50,000 fine, and a missed registration deadline. Arzú is contesting this judgment. In May 2023 the Court confirmed that Arzú is out of the elections after declaring his appeals inadmissible.

His Platform

According to Arzú, his administration will cut drug prices and implement significant education subsidies. He also wants to pay for every home’s electricity for ten years. To battle crime and gang violence, he would deploy the army, militarize jails, and use the death sentence.

Pros

Arzú is well-known in Guatemala City’s political scene. His program promises to lower household electricity rates and increase educational assistance. Despite his background, he has an anti-elitist rhetoric. He blames major private sector organizations that are becoming more and more unpopular for the nation’s problems.

Cons

Arzú’s only official political experience was his brief appointment as an “honorary” corporate ambassador to South America in 2017. When it comes to opposing the well-liked, now-defunct CICIG anti-corruption panel, Arzú has been more openly opposed to the commission than other candidates.

Carlos Pineda

Pineda
Pineda, a relative political outsider with a huge Tiktok following currently has his campaign on hold. Source: YVM

Pineda is a businessman from eastern Guatemala who owns palm oil and banana fields in addition to a transport company. He has never previously sought office. Through his use of TikTok, he became well-known. In a nation of over 19 million people, he has more than a million followers on the network.

In May 2023, the courts put Pineda’s campaign on hold whilst they looked into suspected technical errors in how his party chose its candidates. Pineda is contesting this decision.

His Platform

He has pledged to combat corruption, improve roads, and boost the effectiveness of social services. Additionally, he suggests expanding government initiatives to help farmers acquire crops at stable prices. He also wants to create more jobs through supported technical training courses and financing for small businesses.

Pros

At a time when voters are particularly hostile to Guatemala’s political class, Pineda has attractive outsider credentials. He unexpectedly outperformed his rivals in the polls in May. Thanks to social media. he cultivated a reputation as a right-wing populist. On his platforms, Pineda speaks out vehemently against oligarchs, political elites, and corruption. He presents a persona that is approachable, real, and autonomous.

Cons

Pineda is a fresh face from a small party without the political infrastructure of opponents supported by bigger parties. It is still unknown how much of his social media popularity and favorable polling may convert into votes.

What the Polls are saying

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During election season, the streets are littered with the main candidates’ faces Source: Xiroro

The Key Issues for Guatemalans

Almost half of rural guatemalans rated the high cost of living as the the number 1 issue. Only 19% of urban dwellers say the same. This is a stark demonstration of how the economic climate is exacerbating inequality levels across socioeconomic groups.

Corruption is also a top issue. Almost half (46.7%) of Guatemalans from medium-high income backgrounds rate it as the top issue.

Overall, an astonishing 82.8% of the respondents believe that general situation of the country has gotten worse. To be fair however, there has been an global pandemic which negatively impacted even the most developed regions. Interestingly however, the most optimistic group in Guatemala are the younger generation between 18-29.

top issues
Source: AS/COA Online
general situation
Source: AS/COA Online

Voter Preferences

Between February and May, Pineda surged ahead in the polls. This raises suspicion regarding whether his issues in May with the suspected technical errors were politically driven by competing candidates.

preferences
Source: AS/COA Online

Voting by Income

Pineda was the most popular amongst all income groups but is the most popular amongst the low income population which forms the vast majority. However amongst the high/medium high income population, Ríos holds a clear lead.

One of the most impactful figures is that almost one quarter (24.9%) of 30-44 year olds plan to vote null or blank. This is a clear sign that this age group is one of the most disenfranchised with the the current political climate.

income
Source: AS/COA Online

Conclusion

Elections that are credible, transparent, and inclusive are a cornerstone of democracy and play a crucial role in promoting a peaceful and democratic route to greater stability and prosperity. Here at Pionero Philanthropy, we sincerely hope that the upcoming elections are carried out in an exemplary fashion.

Sadly, evidence was found in previous elections of illegal campaign finance. This contributed to illegitimate enrichment of politicians and their financial supporters. The CICIG also gathered information and probed the financing of political campaigns by organized crime groups.

Thankfully, there will be international oversight of the upcoming election from bodies such as the European Union. We hope therefore that this international attention will help to guarantee ree, fair, and democratic elections.

Stay tuned for our post-election reflections in our next blog!

If you would like to know how civil society organizations contribute to a more prosperous Guatemala, contact us!