On June 16, Guatemalans took to the polls to elect a new president and vice president, along with 158 Congressional deputies, 20 members of the Central American Parliament, and the mayors of 338 municipalities.
For pollsters and political analysts, the presidential results brought few surprises. Former first lady Sandra Torres of the center-left Unidad Nacional de Esperanza (National Unity of Hope, UNE) garnered nearly a quarter of the vote, earning a place in the August run-off for the second consecutive electoral cycle. (She lost to outgoing president Jimmy Morales in the 2015 run-off after triumphing in the first round). This time, Torres will be joined in the second round by conservative candidate Alejandro Giammattei, the former head of Guatemala’s penitentiary system, who received nearly 14 percent of the vote. Giammattei’s political party Vamosis his fourth electoral platform in as many presidential runs.
Having each spent decades at the center of Guatemalan politics, Torres and Giammattei enjoyed the greatest face and name recognition among the slate of 19 candidates, particularly after top contenders like Thelma Aldana, the anti-corruption crusader and former attorney general, and Zury Ríos, the daughter of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, were barred from running by the country’s highest court. The first round outcome thus returns Guatemala to its familiar electoral routine of recycling political insiders from previous ballots—just four years after the election of Morales, a comedian with no prior political experience.
The 2015 general elections occurred on the heels of perhaps the greatest political crisis Guatemala has seen since the end of the internal armed conflict in 1996. The first round of voting was held just four days after the resignation and arrest of then-President Otto Pérez Molina following revelations that he, alongside Vice President Roxana Baldetti, sat atop a massive customs fraud scheme which siphoned off an estimated 1.6 percent of GDP in 2014 alone, according to a report by the Guatemalan think tank ASIES. The customs fraud case, alongside other high-profile corruption scandals, galvanized an unprecedented civic movement, which not only endeavored to oust the criminal syndicate that had coopted Guatemala’s highest political offices, but also sought to enact meaningful reforms to overcome the traditional political and economic class’ stranglehold on the electoral system.
Given the timing, the 2015 general elections offered little opportunity to translate the massive anti-corruption protests into tangible reforms. The voting took place amid a “civil hangover,” as Rachel Nolan described in NACLA at the time—a disillusionment with the electoral offerings set before the protests and an understanding that real progress would have to wait until 2019.
But Sunday’s vote illustrates that even the intervening four years of dogged efforts to reform electoral laws and channel movement organization into formal party representation have yielded only limited, fragile gains. While the social actors who took to the streets in 2015 laid the foundations for a new kind of politics, the defenders of the status quo have reclaimed the reins of Guatemala’s political system and do not appear willing to let go any time soon.
The Resurgence of the CICIG Opposition
Though the two presidential contenders headed to the August 11 run-off find themselves on distinct sides of the ideological spectrum, they are on the same side of the more powerful dividing line that organizes Guatemalan politics today: support for the country’s landmark UN-backed International Commission against Impunity (CICIG). Both Torres and Giammattei have been investigated by the CICIG, which has worked hand-in-hand with the Public Ministry (MP) to dismantle criminal networks within the state since 2007.
Torres’ party first came under fire in August 2017 when then-Attorney General Aldana and CICIG commissioner Iván Velásquez claimed that the UNE failed to report the origin of hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2015 campaign donations. In February 2019, investigators uncovered a series of shell companies controlled by Torres’ 2015 running mate Mario Leal Castillo, which, per a CICIG communiqué, acted as “a parallel administration of official campaign finances.” Though Torres has stated that she would consider putting the renewal of the CICIG up for popular vote, it is hard to imagine her acquiescing to an investigative body actively pursuing her party for previous infractions.
Giammattei has openly ruled out the continuation of the CICIG, promising to make good on Jimmy Morales’ plan to oust the Commission completely. In 2010 and 2011, Giammattei was charged, tried, and eventually acquitted in a case of extrajudicial killings within the notorious Pavón prison. According to the MP and CICIG-led investigation, Giammattei was one of the high-ranking officials from President Óscar Berger’s (2004-2008) security cabinet that oversaw death squad activities to reclaim control of the prison system. Having successfully confronted the CICIG head-on, Giammattei is an ideal emissary for the growing number of political and economic elites that have come under investigation, and, like Torres, would likely return Guatemala to the old “rules of the game” that facilitate impunity and corruption.
The resurgence of the so-called pacto de corruptos [“pact of the corrupt”] is not only evinced by the two presidential contenders left standing. A number of other candidates marred by criminal allegations handily earned reelection. Several of the 150 Congressional candidates accused of corruption triumphed, including José Ubico, who served 40 months in prison for heroin trafficking in the United States; Felipe Alejos, who is accused of heading up a corruption network within the tax administration; and Sandra Patricia Sandoval, whose close family members and advisors have been linked to the drug trade.
In Guatemala City’s mayoral race, sitting mayor Ricardo Quiñónez eked out a close win to uphold the 16-year reign of the ultra-conservative Unionist Party. Quiñónez is the handpicked successor of former president and five-time mayor Álvaro Arzú, a preeminent political force in Guatemalan politics who died suddenly in mid-2018. As with Arzú, who was accused of using municipal resources to finance his 2011 and 2015 campaigns, the CICIG and MP asked judicial officials to lift Quiñónez’s prosecutorial immunity for abetting the scheme. But instead, Quiñónez’s win and the consolidation of unionista control in the capital all but ensure that Arzú’s fiefdom will remain intact despite his absence. Quiñónez was one of eight mayoral candidates to win despite facing corruption allegations.
The inability to purge Guatemala’s political system of the corrupt elite who have long dominated local and national institutions reveals the ultimate fragility of key legislative gains made following the 2015 protests, namely changes to the Law on Political Parties. The reforms, passed in May 2016, sought to limit party campaigns to three months, allow Guatemalans abroad to vote for president and vice president, and enhance internal party competition.
Most importantly, the changes sought to better regulate the distribution of paid political advertising and make campaign donations more regimented and transparent. They required media outlets to register with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which would then oversee the allocation of campaign ads. Party donors were also obliged to register their contributions with the TSE. Finally, the reforms sought to put an end to the widespread practice of jumping between political parties once in office—known in Guatemala as transfuguismo.
While critical steps toward ensuring a fairer and freer 2019 electoral process, the reforms were implemented half-heartedly and inconsistently. As experts Adriana Beltrán and Adeline Hite noted, the run-up to the June 16 contest mostly “raised doubts as to whether the political will and resources exist to ensure that the reforms are fairly and acutely implemented.” Transfuguismo has continued to go unpunished, while questions remain as to whether the TSE effectively constrained illegal party financing and campaign publicity.
Moreover, the “judicialization” of the election—illustrated by the successful efforts to keep Aldana and Ríos off the ballot—restricted the choices available to Guatemalan voters well before election day. The dirty tricks deployed to evade the post-2015 reforms tarnished the democratic character of the process just four years after the country’s most recent “democratic spring.”
From the Streets to the Ballot Box
A reconsolidation of a pro-impunity camp in Guatemala, however, is not the only takeaway from the June 16 elections. The modest success of the reformers who organized following the 2015 protests reveal glimpses that a new kind of politics might be possible in Guatemala, albeit with time.
First-time political party Semilla, Aldana’s electoral platform before she was banned from running, put on an impressive performance on the legislative stage, sending seven new deputies to the 158-member Congress. According to analysis by Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, the Semilla congresistas are expected to form a solid voting bloc with six other small centrist and leftist parties committed to the anti-impunity struggle, together representing just over 20 percent of Congressional seats.
Another success story is that of presidential candidate Thelma Cabrera, a Maya Mam woman who earned a surprising 10 percent of the vote with the Movimiento para la Liberación de los Pueblos (Movement for the Liberation of the People, MLP). Cabrera, a lifelong Indigenous rights activist who ran under the slogan “Yo elijo dignidad” (“I choose dignity”), was popularly chosen by the Peasant Development Committee (CODECA), a nationwide indigenous organization vilified by the country’s traditional economic sectors. Though Cabrera’s candidacy was primarily seen in an anti-system, protest light, her calls for sweeping constitutional reform echo those that reverberated in the aftermath of the 2015 protests. And the 450,000 ballots cast in her favor suggest that the organized Indigenous movement is a national political force that can no longer be ignored.
Though Cabrera’s historic run and Semilla’s first-time gains are encouraging, both developments also speak to the abiding challenges of channeling Guatemala’s landmark anti-corruption movement into viable political party vehicles capable of disrupting the status quo within the formal democratic system.
Though Semilla’s electoral performance inspires some optimism, its limited reach into the rural, predominantly Mayan highlands illustrates the difficulties faced by its urban leadership in achieving truly national representation. According to analysis by political expert Sofía Menchú, Semilla only managed to establish a party presence in 15 of Guatemala’s 22 provinces, while the other center-left allies in the fight against corruption reached less than 13 departments. Moreover, all seven of the Semilla representatives headed to Congress in 2020 hail from the national list or the area in and around Guatemala City.
And while Cabrera made history as only the second Indigenous woman to run for president, her fourth-place finish and 10-percent vote share still fall below the over 13 percent of null or spoiled ballots recorded. Even four years after mass mobilizations that ushered in a new political consciousness, actual protest votes still outpaced votes for the protest candidate.
Outlook for the Presidential Run-Off
Despite finding themselves on the same side of the anti-corruption struggle, Torres and Giammattei do represent distinct political and ideological options—in some ways, offering voters a real choice in the August 11 run-off.
Torres, whose electoral advantage is in Guatemala’s historically marginalized, rural Indigenous areas, has, for many voters, become synonymous with the two social programs she championed as first lady: Bolsa Solidaria (Solidarity Bag), which provides basic foodstuffs to poor families, and Mi Familia Progresa(My Family Progresses), a conditional cash transfer program that pays families who ensure their children attend school and receive clinical checks. If elected, she has vowed to reactivate these programs, seen by critics as clientelist vote-buying mechanisms. And with her party occupying 53 legislative seats, one-third of the chamber, Torres would have an easier time pursuing her agenda.
Giammattei’s proposals have concentrated on addressing crime and insecurity, but have presented little in the way of policy substance. He has pledged to fight “with testosterone” violence and organized crime, to enact a law against terrorism that criminalizes gang membership, and to bring back the death penalty, which was suspended in 2000. According to the digital media outlet Nómada, Giammattei is linked to a number of corrupt political elites and to some of the shadiest figures from Guatemala’s counterinsurgent past, recalling the impunity and criminality that reigned during the civil war period.
Though Torres surged above the field in the first round, the ultimate outcome of the presidential election is far from settled. Torres is among the country’s most polarizing political figures. In an April 2019 survey, half of respondents said they would never cast a ballot in her favor. Even with Torres’ advantage over Giammattei in the first round, it is certainly possible that the same conservative and urban opposition groups that banded together to hand Morales the victory in the 2015 do the same for Giammattei on August 11.
Regardless of the run-off result, one thing is clear: those who took to the streets to protest government corruption in 2015 and have patiently waited to reap the fruits of subsequent political reforms will have to wait a bit longer. Guatemala’s “civil hangover” has not yet lifted.
Rachel A. Schwartz received her Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2019. Her research examines the legacies of civil war, state formation, and the rule of law in Central America. During the 2019-2020 academic year, she will be a postdoctoral fellow at Tulane University’s Center for Inter-American Policy and Research (CIPR).