Guatemalans went to the polls on June 25 to elect a new president, Congress, and local authorities. No one held high hopes for change: three of the most well-known tickets (all with an anti-establishment bent of some kind) had been disqualified on thin- to nonexistent grounds, and their candidates were calling for voters to cast deliberately spoiled ballots that would be annulled. Status quo candidates were allowed to run unimpeded. The polls predicted continuity.

The polls were wrong.

Since then, the country has been immersed in a political and legal crisis, with growing worries that the second round of elections will be canceled or stolen by those seeking continuity. The crisis has been provoked largely by questionable actions of Attorney General (called Ministerio Publico, or MP, in Spanish) Consuelo Porras’ office and a group of like-minded judges. As people take to the streets en masse to protect the integrity of the elections and call for accountability for corrupt authorities, the risk of violent repression or even military intervention also grows.

The first round of voting yielded two predicable results: the number of null or spoiled ballots came in first, with 18 percent of the vote, and as has happened twice before, some 15 percent of the electorate voted for Sandra Torres, a former first lady known for expanding social welfare programs during her husband’s administration. Her party (known as UNE) has been accused of ties to organized crime and large-scale corruption, and supported the agenda of President Alejandro Giammattei, who is barred by term limits from running again.

The big surprise was the second-place finisher in the presidential race after Torres, Bernardo Arévalo of the Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement). Semilla grew out of the massive 2015 anti-corruption protests that forced then-President Pérez Molina to resign. He, his vice president, and several ministers and advisors had been charged with embezzlement, bribery, and other corruption-related crimes after investigations led by the United Nations-backed Commission Against Impunity (CICIG). Semilla won a handful of congressional seats in 2019 and spent the next few years building a political party and denouncing the “Pact of the Corrupt” that had taken over Congress, the Prosecutor/Attorney General’s Office, independent agencies, and the courts. It had placed eighth in pre-vote polls.

Why did Semilla do so well? Pundits pointed to the disqualification of candidates who could have attracted similar voters, as well as increasing urbanization throughout the country, the rise of a new generation of young Mayan activists, a desperate economic situation for the poor that fuels increasing migration and crime, and above all a widespread recognition that the institutions of the state have been wholly captured by a predatory elite that was likely to continue in power. Candidate Arévalo, the son of Guatemala’s most beloved modern president, Juan José Arévalo, ran on a moderate, institutionalist platform and stayed away from hot-button social issues.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal duly announced that Torres and Arévalo would face off in a runoff election, to be held on Aug. 20. This set off a furious backlash as those forces who felt threatened by Semilla’s agenda tried to disqualify or undermine the party, using both the power of the state and private harassment and intimidation.

First, the traditional political parties claimed fraud, causing a delay in the final tally as the Constitutional Court ordered a recount, despite all the political parties originally signing off on the results. The recount predictably changed nothing but, as has been done elsewhere, was apparently intended to sow doubts about the integrity of the electoral process. Instead, it provoked widespread indignation and further complaints – and bad international press –about the independence and impartiality of the Constitutional Court.

Then the Attorney General’s Office intervened to try to disqualify Semilla. Porras has perfected the use of “lawfare” to attack human rights defenders, anti-corruption prosecutors and judges, investigative journalists, and other sources of opposition to the “Pact of the Corrupt.” The attacks on Semilla have focused on supposed false affiliation signatures during the party’s inscription drive, which took place in 2018. Conveniently, the day the runoff was certified, the AG’s office found an old complaint, from 2021, alleging that an individual who appeared on an affiliate list had never actually signed on. This was enough to trigger a request to a local court to de-certify Semilla’s registration as a party. Judge Freddy Orellana granted the request, despite a legal prohibition on de-certifying a political party during an election. This caused an uproar, with even the conservative private-sector chambers of commerce as well as opposing runoff candidate Sandra Torres, foreign embassies, the Organization of American States, and professional and civic organizations denouncing the move as an attempt to derail the will of voters.

On July 13, the Constitutional Court issued a preliminary injunction against Judge Orellana and the Attorney General’s Office. The Court held that attempts to cancel Semilla as a political party during an election were unconstitutional, and that the runoff should proceed as planned. It reiterated that ruling on July 21, although leaving an opening for criminal investigations to continue so long as they don’t interfere with the elections.

Orellana responded by doubling down, sending dozens of police to raid the offices of both Semilla and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, issuing an arrest warrant for the head of that Tribunal and, when he fled the country, issuing another warrant for his deputy (despite the fact that both officials have immunity and cannot be arrested without a prior proceeding).  Orellana also issued arrest warrants for two Semilla militants and declared (with no evidence) that there were at least 5,000 falsified signatures. On July 23, the Constitutional Court again reiterated its injunction while denying a requested ruling against the attacks on electoral officials as unnecessary.

“Legal” Authoritarianism and State Capture

Respect for rule of law, freedom of expression, and democratic norms has been declining steadily since 2019, when the CICIG was expelled from the country after its investigations came too close to then-President Jimmy Morales. (See coverage here, here, and here.).  In short order, a majority in Congress selected questionable high court judges, refusing to sit an independent Constitutional Court judge and postponing required elections for the Supreme Court, leaving the incumbents in place. (As the prospect of a Semilla victory threatens, the current Congress is now racing to complete those elections.) The attorney general jailed former prosecutor Virginia Laparra, who had worked closely with CICIG, put crusading journalist and newspaper publisher José Zamora into solitary confinement, and chased most of the country’s independent watchdogs (as described here) out of the country. Op-ed writers who criticized these actions were accused of obstruction of justice.

Ironically, the Attorney General’s Office repurposed the very laws and prosecutorial units created to combat organized crime and large-scale corruption to attack those denouncing corruption. Money laundering accusations, bandied about despite being facially inapplicable, allowed Porras to centralize prosecutions in the newly purged anti-corruption unit. The head of the Supreme Court steered these cases to a handful of lower court judges, including Orellana. Retired military officers and far-right activists in the so-called Foundation Against Terrorism filed criminal complaints based on dubious facts and legal theories against perceived opponents, boasting in social media that they aimed for the “civic death” of those who had supported CICIG or the left. Hundreds of social media “netcenters” – collections of social media accounts that appear to be independent but are centrally controlled — with obscure funding churned out threats and abuse. In short, Guatemala followed the current global blueprint to install “legal” authoritarianism, here on behalf of a group of economic elites allied with organized crime groups and predatory government officials. This election may upend that blueprint.

That possibility means that continued attacks on the electoral process, and especially on Semilla, are to be expected. The Attorney General’s Office has vowed to continue its investigations despite the Constitutional Court’s ruling; that ruling is provisional, and pressure will be exerted to change it or further water it down.

On the other hand, the attempts to subvert the elections have mobilized indigenous and local authorities, and especially young people, to defend the process and the results. Massive demonstrations throughout the country have been met with police repression; that violent dynamic may intensify (or be provoked) in an effort to get either the military or President Giammattei’s government to step in and halt the elections.

Semilla’s local activists are particularly at risk.  And even if a clean election takes place, a Semilla-led government would face both legal attacks from the attorney general (who in Guatemala is independent of the government) and from an opposition-led Congress.

The U.S. Role

So far, the U.S. State Department and Congress have played a constructive role, condemning the attacks on Semilla’s offices and members and warning against any interference with free and fair elections. Under the U.S.-Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act (better known as the Engel Act), the United States has listed Porras, her deputy Rafael Curruchiche, and most recently Orellana and other judges and prosecutors as having “knowingly engaged in acts that undermine democratic processes or institutions, in significant corruption, or in obstruction of investigations into such acts of corruption.”  The listing results in U.S. visa denial and revocation but not financial sanctions.

While publicly most of those on the Engel list have laughed off the sanctions, in private they seem to be having some effect. This Constitutional Court has not generally been willing to confront corrupt actors, and the threat of sanctions and loss of reputation may help strengthen their resolve. The private sector, especially, is afraid that Engel listing can lead to financial sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act or other laws, which would limit their financial dealings with U.S. banks and have more real bite. The lack of public support for electoral interference from private-sector groups like CACIF (the Chamber of Commerce) may be due to fear of escalating sanctions.

This suggests that between now and when a new government takes office next January, the United States can play a constructive role in several ways. It can serve as an intermediary in discussions with the private sector, emphasizing the dangers to them of perceived interference with elections as well as the advantages of a fresh start. It can use Global Magnitsky sanctions, with their financial implications, to strategically drive the point home and isolate the most anti-democratic elements. It can play a similar role with the military, urging non-interference and restraint, combined with a vow that security assistance will be restricted or cut entirely in case of violence against peaceful demonstrators or repression of political or media actors.  And after the elections, it can help protect Semilla candidates, activists, and voters from a predictable upsurge in physical and legal attacks.

It’s going to be a rocky several weeks between now and the scheduled Aug. 20 runoff, and may be in the aftermath, too. Stay tuned.

IMAGE: Police officers stand guard as indigenous women burn incense outside the Constitutional Court during the “March of the Flowers” in Guatemala City on July 23, 2023, to demand the resignation of judicial officials accused of generating an electoral crisis in Guatemala ahead of a runoff vote on Aug. 20. (Photo by JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP via Getty Images)