GUATEMALA CITY — A political outsider who has vowed to fight corruption won a landslide victory in Sunday’s presidential election in Guatemala — a vote that could mark a turning point for a nation with a faltering democracy.
The big question as Guatemalans cast their ballots, though, wasn’t just whether Bernardo Arévalo would win. It was whether he would be allowed to govern.
Prosecutors tried unsuccessfully to suspend his party after he finished as the surprise runner-up in the first round of voting on June 25. U.S. and European Union officials, as well as the Organization of American States, pressed the government to allow a fair race.
With nearly 96 percent of the vote tallied, Arévalo had a 59 percent to 36 percent lead, according to provisional results — crushing his opponent Sandra Torres, a former first lady seen as close to the traditional Guatemalan political and economic power brokers. Arévalo supporters called the come-from-behind victory a historic moment in a country where the military and a small business elite have traditionally dominated.
“This is for the people of Guatemala,” Arévalo said at the campaign headquarters of his party, Semilla, which means Seed. “Let the people know they will not be forgotten or marginalized.”
He pledged to work for the “well-being of a unified country” and to battle corruption, as supporters cheered.
“Yes we can! Yes we can!” workers shouted outside the campaign center. Some people waved Guatemalan flags or filled the air with the blare of plastic trumpets known as vuvuzelas. Passing cars honked their horns in celebration.
“At last, it feels like we are on the right path,” said Jared Ovalle, 23, a coffee shop worker in Guatemala City. Natalia Guzmán, 29, an anthropologist, said: “Semilla is a sign that the people are willing to fight for a better Guatemala.”
The implications of Sunday’s vote go well beyond this coffee-exporting country of 17 million, one of the poorest in Latin America. Guatemala is a major source of irregular migration to the United States and is a significant pipeline for Colombian cocaine bound for the U.S. market. The Biden administration took office pledging to combat corruption and support a stronger rule of law in Central America, as a way to deter migration. But in Guatemala, as well as Nicaragua and El Salvador, democratic institutions including an independent judiciary have eroded.
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Isa García, 37, a restaurant owner in Chimaltenango, west of the capital, said that she had cast her vote for Arévalo. “I think with less corruption, we’ll get more money to where it needs to go,” she said. “And maybe that will stop the next generation leaving?”
Arévalo’s father, Juan José, is widely known as a leader of the “Guatemalan spring,” a period of democratic rule that began in 1944 when he was elected president. Ten years later, his successor, Jacobo Árbenz, was ousted in a U.S.-backed coup that ushered in decades of military rule.
The younger Arévalo is a 64-year-old former diplomat and member of Congress who was born in Uruguay as his father was living in political exile.
Sunday’s resounding victory for his Semilla party marked a substantial shift in Guatemala’s political structure — from a series of mostly conservative leaders to a social democrat. However, Arévalo faces numerous obstacles: Prosecutors are still trying to strip his party’s legal status, claiming irregularities in its registration in 2018.
His party is also being investigated for alleged violations in vote-counting in the first round. Arévalo has denied the charges, calling them politically motivated. Rafael Curruchiche, a top prosecutor, told the TV station Canal Antigua that mass arrests could occur after the voting ended.
“A lot of people in government and other political actors are very worried that the results did not go their way” in the first round, said Roberto Wagner, an independent political analyst. They are willing to do “whatever it takes to get their pick in.”
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Still, President Alejandro Giammattei recognized Arévalo’s victory, even though his opponent did not immediately concede. Giammattei said he invited Arévalo to the presidential palace after the results were made official “to schedule the most orderly and complete transition that has happened in the country.”
Since a three-decade-long civil war ended in 1996, analysts say, Guatemala’s government has been dominated by a group of political, military and economic elites known for corruption. They became the target of a U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission whose investigations helped topple president Otto Pérez Molina in 2015. Arévalo’s party grew out of the anti-corruption movement that flourished at the time.
But successive governments struck back — refusing to extend the commission’s mandate and seeking to arrest the anti-graft prosecutors themselves. Corruption investigations have slowed to a trickle.
More than 30 prosecutors and judges, as well as two attorneys general, have fled the country. José Rubén Zamora, publisher of El Periódico, a newspaper that exposed corruption, was jailed last year on what international press freedom groups called spurious charges.
The Biden administration has been torn between its pro-democracy agenda and negotiating with leaders such as Giammattei to keep a lid on migration, analysts say. Washington has slapped sanctions on dozens of Guatemalan business executives and officials, including the attorney general, María Consuelo Porras, for alleged corruption or for undermining democratic processes.
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The repercussions of that democratic backsliding are felt far beyond Guatemala’s borders. Corruption eats up a sizable chunk of the country’s federal budget — 20 percent, according to one study in 2015. That translates into less money for education, health or other services in poor areas.
“If the state is not providing anything, you’re going to have citizens leaving the country,” said Pamela Ruiz, Central America analyst at the International Crisis Group.
In fiscal 2022, the U.S. Border Patrol reported more than 228,000 detentions of Guatemalans at the U.S.-Mexico border. Many Guatemalans migrate to the United States to try to help their families at home. The country’s central bank is projecting that $19.39 billion will be sent back this year, accounting for nearly one-fifth of the country’s GDP.
The presidential race has been marred by numerous controversies, with electoral authorities eliminating several candidates on technicalities before the first round. Giammattei is constitutionally barred from seeking a second term and has pledged to hand over power as scheduled on Jan. 14.
Despite his popularity, Arévalo may not have an easy time passing his reforms. Semilla will have a minority in Congress — just 23 out of 160 seats. About 45 percent of eligible voters cast ballots Sunday, a sign of citizens’ lack of confidence in government.
As election action unfolded in Guatemala’s lush rural areas, it sometimes felt like there was only one party in the campaign. Torres and her National Unity of Hope party have a formidable rural base and a robust structure that has catapulted the party into the runoff in three of the last four presidential elections.
But turnout in the countryside appeared low on Sunday. Rural voters have traditionally participated more in the first round of presidential balloting, when they also choose their mayor and member of Congress.
Álvaro Colom, Torres’s then-husband, won the presidency in 2007. Torres — who in the past ran as a socialist and social democrat, before tacking to the right — also lost the presidential races in 2015 and 2019.
Sheridan reported from Mexico City.