A progressive from outside Guatemala’s power structure was resoundingly elected the country’s next president Sunday in a reprimand to the governing elite over widespread allegations of corruption.
Despite preliminary results showing a potential landslide for anti-corruption crusader Bernardo Arévalo, the attention immediately turned to whether he would be allowed to assume power as the current administration attempts to suspend his party’s legal status.
With more than 99 percent of votes counted, preliminary results gave Arévalo 58% of the vote to 37% for former first lady Sandra Torres in her third bid for the presidency. The official results will still have to be certified.
Arévalo is the son of former president Juan José Arévalo, who in 1948 recognized the State of Israel and later served as ambassador to the country. During the latter appointment, Bernardo studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Bernardo Arévalo has also been active in Guatemala’s foreign service, including serving as a minister counselor in Israel.
“We know that there is a political persecution underway that is being carried out through the institutions and prosecutor’s offices and judges that have been corruptly co-opted,” Arévalo said Sunday night. “We want to think that the force of this victory is going to make it clear that there is no place for the attempts to derail the electoral process. The Guatemalan people have spoken forcefully.”
Arévalo said outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei congratulated him and told him that they would begin planning the transition the day after the results were certified.
But Guatemalans still remember that an hour before the results from the first round of voting were certified last month, the Attorney General’s Office announced it was investigating the signatures gathered by Arévalo’s Seed Movement party to register years earlier. A judge briefly suspended the party’s legal status before a higher court intervened.
Eduardo Núñez, the Guatemala resident senior director for the National Democratic Institute, expected two trends to continue and intensify in the coming days: the country’s polarization and the judicialization of the electoral process.
Núñez said there will be three key moments: the immediate positions staked out by Arévalo’s Seed Movement and Torres’ National Unity of Hope party about the results; then on Oct. 31, when Guatemala’s electoral process officially ends and the Seed Movement will no longer enjoy the legal protection that would keep it from being cancelled, and finally on Jan. 14, when Giammattei is constitutionally mandated to leave office.
“It is likely that there could be a series of official actions that look to modify in one way or another what happened in the June elections and what could happen now in the August elections,” Núñez said.
A big question remained how Guatemalans could react to any government actions that appear to go against the will of the voters.
Alec Escobar celebrated Arévalo’s victory in downtown Guatemala City but said he knew difficult days lie ahead.
Even if Torres or others do not accept the result, and the attorney general moves against the Seed Movement, Escobar said he and other young people who formed Arévalo’s base of support were ready to act.
“Just like we protected the first electoral round, we are going to protect the country’s democracy,” he said.
Edmond Mulet is a former Guatemalan diplomat and president of Congress, who competed in the first round of the election as the presidential candidate for the Cabal party. Prosecutors have three open cases against him and his party, in what he said was a safeguard in case he had made it to the runoff.
He noted that in 2015, massive street protests pushed President Otto Pérez Molina, accused of massive corruption, to resign. Mulet does not see the current situation as clear-cut and believes Guatemala’s power structure will use legal tools to create confusion and sow doubt in hopes of avoiding a massive united public reaction.
“In any other country in the world, the people would have been out in the streets a long time ago, but in Guatemala there’s another solution: migration,” Mulet said. “That’s the pressure valve. Elsewhere this would have exploded already.”
Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans have emigrated to the United States in recent years, and the Biden administration considers Guatemala’s corruption to be a major push factor for migrants.
Mulet sees at least two possible scenarios in the coming weeks and months.
In one, the Seed Movement is cancelled and Arévalo is allowed to assume the presidency without a party. It would have dire effects on his party’s representatives in the Congress, who would be barred from holding leadership positions or leading committees. They would already be in the minority.
Arévalo could expect almost immediate attempts from Congress to remove him from office and struggle to advance any sort of legislation.
In the other scenario described by Mulet, the Attorney General’s Office succeeds in cancelling the legal status of the Seed Movement. Then it makes the argument that because the party was improperly registered, everything that occurred afterward, including Arévalo’s nomination, is nullified and he cannot assume the presidency.
If Giammattei leaves office as constitutionally mandated on January 14 and there is not a president-elect – or vice president-elect — to take his place, the next in line would be the president of the Congress, almost certainly a Giammattei ally. The president of Congress would then present a list of three names, possibly including his or her own, to Congress and lawmakers would select a temporary president for the nation.
It is such new legal territory that it is unclear if that would be to serve out Arévalo’s full term or if a new election could be called sooner, Núñez said.
Before Sunday’s results were known, Mulet speculated that a large margin of victory for Arévalo could make his opponents think twice about their next steps.
“I think they’ve been testing Guatemalans … to see if they’re going to mobilize,” Mulet said.