GUATEMALA CITY — Late Wednesday, a judge ordered the suspension of the Semilla political party, based on a Public Ministry (PM) investigation into the party for suspected paperwork irregularities as well as money laundering. It is unclear whether the suspension will be upheld by the courts. Regardless, the move shows the muscle of the forces that dominate Guatemala’s politics and oppose change. It also illustrates the limits they will seek to impose on the country’s fragile democracy in the months and years ahead.
If the suspension is upheld, it would disqualify Semilla’s presidential candidate Bernardo Arévalo, who had won enough votes in the first-round elections on June 25 to advance to a runoff, scheduled for August 20. Arévalo’s surprise showing led to a groundswell of optimism in Guatemala, which has endured a decade of severe democratic backsliding, escalating corruption and stubbornly high rates of poverty and malnutrition.
If this were a clean election, Arévalo—a center-left change candidate who promises to crack down on corruption—would be the clear favorite to win the runoff against Sandra Torres, widely viewed as a continuity candidate. But this is not a clean election, and now reality is setting in.
Ever since the first-round results were announced, powerful political forces representing the status quo have been scrambling to nullify them and prevent Arévalo from advancing to the runoff. Others have focused on a strategy to beat him if he does advance. Either effort may well succeed. And even if Arévalo manages to overcome both to win the presidency, the same forces will continue to use the many tools at their disposal to hamstring his administration and prevent meaningful reform.
Semilla’s suspension—through the PM and the courts—illustrates the primary mechanisms of control wielded by the political and economic elites and organized crime figures who oppose change. Instead of vesting power in a single head of state, this alliance of illicit interests has focused on exercising control in law enforcement, the courts and Congress, creating a unique brand of authoritarianism that is less personalistic than systemic.
These same mechanisms had already been brought to bear during the run-up to the elections. Three prominent change candidates were disqualified from the election on dubious grounds by high court decisions. Arévalo was spared this fate, likely because he was barely registering in the polls: He garnered just 3% support in the last major poll three days before the first-round vote.
Guatemala’s Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) had supported those disqualifications, which were widely condemned by international observers. However, late Wednesday evening, after the PM announced Semilla’s suspension, the TSE certified the first-round result sending Arévalo to the runoff. This appeared to buoy the hopes of Semilla and its supporters that the courts will not uphold the party’s suspension, which several prominent legal experts called spurious and illegal.
However, the optimism is tempered; one member of the Semilla party mentioned in the PM’s investigation has already left Guatemala fearing arrest. Early Thursday, the PM executed a search of TSE offices, showing that the investigation is advancing. TSE judges said they will not comment on the search or the suspension and will follow legal protocols.
Even if Arévalo manages to compete in the runoff and win the presidency, though, he will face a recalcitrant Congress dominated by the powers that oppose him. The ruling party, Vamos, scored a massive victory in Congress, and will become the legislature’s largest bloc—even though President Alejandro Giammattei, who cannot run for reelection, is historically unpopular after being implicated in a string of corruption scandals and presiding over a crackdown on anti-corruption investigations that has sent several high-profile judges, prosecutors and journalists to prison and dozens more into exile. He denies wrongdoing. The ruling party’s presidential candidate, Manuel Conde, finished third in the first-round election, behind Arévalo and Torres. If Arévalo is barred from the runoff, Conde would likely advance in his place. Other parties have accused Vamos of vote-buying and other illegal election schemes, but neither the PM nor the courts have investigated. Vamos denies the accusations.
Whoever becomes president, parties aligned with the status quo are due to control at least 86 of 180 seats. Semilla won 23 seats in the first-round elections, which would give it the third-largest bloc in Congress. If those seats disappear, Congress will be even more firmly controlled by opponents of change.
It is unclear how the situation will play out. The wavering high courts may face massive popular demonstrations as they weigh whether to allow Semilla to survive. Whatever happens, the optimism created by Arévalo’s first-round surprise is likely to fade as Guatemala’s authoritarianism regroups.
Tags: Bernardo Arevalo, Guatemala, Guatemalan Elections