On June 16th, Guatemala will hold general elections. More than eight million voters are registered to choose the country’s next president. The election will also renew all 160 seats in the unicameral legislature, 20 seats in the Central American Parliament, and local posts in each of the country’s 340 municipalities. If no presidential candidate reaches an absolute majority in the first-round vote—as has been the case in every election since 1985—then a run-off is scheduled for August 11 between the two candidates with the highest vote share.
This election reflects many of Guatemala’s challenges. Widespread corruption and an unpopular president with authoritarian tendencies have paved the way for an election marked by a crowded field of mostly unknown presidential hopefuls. After the country’s Constitutional Court ruled against the candidacies of two top contenders—ex-dictator’s daughter Zury Ríos and former Attorney General Thelma Aldana—the election shifted from a relatively safe bet to an uncertain race.
Losing the war against corruption
In the country of 17 million people, corruption has been endemic. In a novel effort to address the problem, the government of Óscar Berger (2004-2008) invited the United Nations to create the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to investigate corruption and crime in the country.
With the CICIG in place, it became increasingly common for politicians to be investigated and arrested on corruption charges. In 2013, a CICIG-backed investigation resulted in the extradition of former president Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004) to the United States, where he admitted to receiving $2.5 million in bribes for granting diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. In 2018, former president Álvaro Colom (2008-2012) and members of his cabinet (including Juan Alberto Fuentes, then Oxfam president) were temporally arrested for the irregular purchase of public buses, known as Transurbano.
Yet, it was the CICIG’s investigations into sitting presidents that revealed the potential of the crackdown against corruption. In 2015, president Otto Pérez-Molina (2012-2015) was forced to step down from office in the wake of a high-profile corruption scandal known as La Línea. He is currently in prison awaiting trial, which is set to begin in 2020. Roxanna Baldetti, his vice-president, was recently sentenced to 15 years in jail for corruption.
Despite the CICIG’s steps in the right direction, corruption in the country remains widespread. In the latest version of the Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index, Guatemala ranked 144 out of 180 countries. Sadly, the advances made by the CICIG came to a dramatic end during the presidency of Jimmy Morales.
Jimmy Morales: corruption champion
In 2015, Jimmy Morales, a comedian-turned-politician who had never before held public office, won a presidential run-off election with 66 percent of votes. Morales’ campaign slogan ni corrupto, ni ladrón (neither corrupt nor thief) appealed to voters fed up with corruption.
Although candidate Morales promised to strengthen the CIGIG’s mandate, and even publicly invited the commission to investigate him and his party, the conservative Front of National Convergence (FCN-Nación), president Morales embraced a controversial policy-shift after the CICIG did exactly what he asked them to do. Shortly into his presidency, the anti-graft commission led an investigation against Sammy Morales and José Manuel Morales, the brother, and son of the president respectively, on charges of fraud. The CICIG then announced it was looking into the FCN-Nación and Morales for irregular campaign financing. The commission eventually asked the legislature to withdraw Morales’ presidential immunity.
Morales quickly responded to the CICIG’s investigations. In an effort to protect himself and his inner-circle, the president announced that he would not be extending the anti-graft commissions’ mandate, which was set for renewal on September 2019. The political outsider then prohibited Iván Velásquez, the Colombian head of the CICIG, from entering the country. In a final blow, Morales decided to expel the commission altogether by giving its members 24 hours to abandon the country. The decision triggered protests and a constitutional crisis, with critics accusing the government of leading a soft coup.
Morales’ term in office has proven to be disastrous for Guatemala’s young democracy. The candidate who once rallied voters on an anti-corruption platform turned out to be the champion of the corrupt status quo. With little to show for his four years in government and a disapproval rating of 62 percent, Morales will go down in history as the president who ended the country’s most successful anti-graft experiment and an anti-corruption best practice in Latin America. His broken campaign promises have further bred popular discontent with Guatemala’s political establishment.
A long list of mostly unknown candidates
Until recently three women led in voter intention in the presidential contest. However, the country’s Constitutional Court banned two of them from officially registering on the ballot—throwing the election into disarray.
Thelma Aldana was the best candidate to jumpstart the fight against corruption. A lawyer by training and former Magistrate of the Supreme Court (2009-2014) and Attorney General (2014-2018), Aldana played a key role in the downfall of Otto Pérez Molina and the investigations into Jimmy Morales. After stepping down as Attorney General, the candidate of Movimiento Semilla was well on the way to becoming Guatemala’s first female president. Yet, local prosecutors launched a questionable investigation that forced Aldana to flee the country, which eventually gave grounds for the Constitutional Court to ban her candidacy.
Zury Ríos is a seasoned politician who served in Congress from 1996 to 2012. The daughter of a former dictator, Ríos was running on the platform of the conservative Valor party. During much of the race, she was scrambling to pass on to the second-round vote. Yet, a ruling by the Constitutional Court also brought her presidential aspirations to an abrupt end (the Constitution prohibits the relatives of dictators from becoming president).
From the top three female contenders, only Sandra Torres remains. Torres is the ex-wife of the disgraced former president, Álvaro Colom. This is Torres’ third try for the presidency. In 2011, Torres divorced Colom in an attempt to become president. The Constitutional Court denied her petition since the partners of sitting presidents cannot run for the presidency. In 2015, she lost in a second-round vote to Jimmy Morales. Now Torres, who has never before held elected office, is leading voter’s preferences and will likely make it to the presidential run-off.
The question that remains open is who will join Torres in the second vote round (if any). A total of 18 mostly unknown presidential hopefuls are disputing a place on the ballot. The number has dropped following a series of the rulings from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and Constitutional Court. One of the candidates, Mario Estrada, was recently arrested in the United States on drug-trafficking charges.
Three names stand out from the long list of candidates. One of them is Alejandro Giammattei. A pragmatic three times former candidate (2007, 2011 and 2015), with each election he has run on a different party ticket. This time Giammettei is running for the newly founded Vamos party. Roberto Arzú, the son of former president Álvaro Arzú (1996-2000) and mayor of Guatemala City (2004-2018), has no political credentials beyond his family name but is one of the leaders in the crowded field. Edmond Mulet, a veteran politician and diplomat, is perhaps the most serious of the three contenders—but is performing poorly in the polls.
Oddly, despite the country’s history of corruption and voter demands for cleaner government, there is no single candidate with a proven anti-corruption record running for the presidency. It seems unlikely that any of the candidates on the ballot will be able to successfully provide solutions to voters’ urgent concerns, which include a slowing economy, growing poverty, rampant corruption and high levels of crime. The only outcome that seems tragically certain is that the political establishment running Guatemala’s fragile democracy is destined to fail voters—again.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on twitter @lucasperello