Image Source: U.S. Mission to the Organization of American States
Following the first-round of presidential elections on June 25, 2023, the losing candidates, representing the ruling party and the Guatemalan political establishment, initiated a series of controversial judicial actions that essentially attempted a veiled coup d’état. Through the Public Ministry of the Attorney General’s Office, such candidates questioned the results and tried to prevent the certification of the second-place candidate, Bernardo Arévalo (Movimiento Semilla Party). Failing that, they sought to ban him from the second-round on August 20, 2023. The coup attempt continued after Arévalo won the runoff with approximately 60 percent of the votes.
The Guatemalan government and the political establishment fear Arévalo’s intention to eradicate corruption and impunity. Some even suspect that he wants to reinstate the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG). (In May 2023, the U.S. government designated Guatemala’s current Attorney General, María Consuelo Porras, for her involvement in corruption). His anti-corruption stance was his main campaign motto and appeal to marginalized groups and young voters.
The new attempt at a veiled coup seeks to further harm Arévalo. A minimum of popular support (0.30 percent of registered voters) is mandated to participate in elections. Even though he obtained significantly more support than required in both ballots , a prosecutor from the Attorney General’s Office ordered the Voters’ Registry Office to suspend his party, also alleging irregularities in the registration of its members. The prosecutor had previously ordered the Registry to seize the party’s records and issued an arrest warrant for its director and two of its officials. Paradoxically, the day before the suspension, the Electoral Tribunal (TSE) validated the results of the ballotage and proclaimed Arévalo President-elect.
After the suspension, the Guatemalan Congress stopped recognizing the Movimiento Semilla Party as a congressional bloc and declared its members as independent legislators, barring them from participating in committees and essentially curtailing their influence. This was an attempt to force the President-elect to abandon his proposal against corruption.
Given the threats to the integrity of the electoral process, Member States of the Organization of American States (OAS) Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the United States, and Uruguay convened a second meeting of the OAS Permanent Council on September 1, 2023 (the first one was held on July 26, 2023), to address the political situation in Guatemala. During that meeting, OAS’s Head of the Electoral Observation Mission (EOM), former Paraguayan Foreign Minister Eladio Loizaga, and the Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) Tania Reneaum, expressed their concerns about the new attempts by Guatemala’s Public Ministry to interfere with the process and disqualify the legitimate election winner.
Most significantly, the Member States unanimously approved a stern declaration, which welcomed the TSE decision to certify the results of the presidential election and declare Arévalo as the winner. The document also poses concerns about the post-election judicial actions by partisan forces and the Attorney General aimed at subverting the popular will, suspending Arévalo’s party, and intimidating the candidate, his party officials, and electoral authorities.
OAS’s declaration also appealed to all institutions and civil society to respect and guarantee “the civil and political rights of the Guatemalan people…” and called on them “to avoid interference in the presidential transition process” and to respect “the separation of powers.” However, the Member States also recognized Guatemala President Alejandro Giammattei’s measures to guarantee the personal safety of the President and Vice President-elect, as well as his “commitment to guarantee an orderly transition process,” while also noting his “invitation to the OAS secretary general, Luis Almagro, to observe the process.”
While President Giammattei has recognized Arévalo’s victory and appears to respect the electoral authorities’ decision, and has started the presidential transition, his Attorney General continues to interfere with the process. Moreover, the pro-government losing party UNE has yet to recognize Arévalo’s’ victory. This makes one wonder if there is a double game being played here.
Nevertheless, the concern expressed by the hemispheric democratic community appears to have had an impact: the TSE canceled the Registry’s decision, citing the fact that the electoral process does not officially end until October 31, 2023. Under Guatemalan Electoral Law, no party approved to participate in the process can be suspended while it is in effect. The transition process started with the presence of the OAS Secretary General, who has also called “for the cessation of actions that erode the rule of law and for adhering to democratic principles and respecting the will of the citizenry.” The Biden administration itself has dispatched an envoy to speak with President-elect Arévalo and President Giammattei. There is no guarantee, however, that the attempt to suspend the party will not continue until inauguration day on January 14, 2024.
The actions by the Permanent Council and the Secretary General demonstrate the continuing validity of the OAS and its Democratic Charter as the principal instruments for the defense of democracy in the Americas. They also confirm the collective commitment to ensuring electoral integrity in Member States through electoral observation missions (EOM). Despite the OAS’s actions in favor of democracy, what ultimately saves it from collapse is the commitment and respect for democratic values and institutions by its citizens and leaders.
Rubén M. Perina is a former OAS official and author of the book “The Organization of American States as the Advocate and Guardian of Democracy: An Insider’s Critical Assessment of its Role in Promoting and Defending Democracy.”