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Elections in Guatemala: Latin America’s ‘Pink Tide’ caught on the rocks?

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Foreign Policy Analyst

President elect Bernardo Arévalo, 2023 | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It has been three weeks since a second round of elections in Guatemala brought Bernardo Arevalo and his Seed Party (“Movimiento Semilla”) to power. Yet, even as his outgoing predecessor vowed to ensure an “orderly and transparent” transition of power, Arevalo’s victory remains in limbo. Up to this point, the election cycle had already been mired in confusion and contestation, orchestrated primarily by the country’s judiciary and the opposition.

The first round of elections held at the end of June failed to produce a winner, with no party claiming more than 50% of the vote. The resulting second round was delayed when a number of parties alleged that their first-round votes had been diluted after ranking among the leaders in polls in the run-up to election day. A ruling by the Constitutional Court that suspended the release of election results on this basis was subsequently quashed by the Supreme Court of Justice, which ruled that Guatemala’s Electoral Tribunal (TSE) had carried out elections in a free and fair manner.

However, by early July, the office of the Attorney General had also intervened, exacerbating a growing political deadlock when it announced that, on their request, Special Prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche and Judge Freddy Orellana had moved to legally suspend Semilla’s legal status. Their justification had been ‘“irregularities” in the registration of party members - an allegation which Arevalo rebuffed.

The effort to suspend Semilla was met in turn with an injunction submitted by the party to the TSE and in turn to the Constitutional Court, which ultimately decreed that a party could not legally be suspended after the election process had begun and while it was still ongoing. But this judgement did not stop the ringleaders in the Attorney General’s office from continuing to intimidate and harass public officials, as Orellana ordered another raid on the offices of the TSE, seizing voter information.

The whiff of corruption emanating from Guatemala’s judiciary intensified when just last week, Attorney General Maria Consuelo Porras ordered a raid on Semilla’s party headquarters as well as the arrest of a prominent anti-corruption lawyer, Claudia Gonzalez. Such flagrant political interventions prompted the US State department to sanction Curruchiche, Orellana, and Porras, as well as seven other Guatemalan public officials. By the time the second round of the election was held in late August, the judicial establishment’s concerted hostility towards Arevalo appeared to have worked in his favour, with Semilla winning 60% of the vote.

But even despite this decisive result, the political scheming to obstruct Arevalo from taking office did not let up. Last Tuesday, even as the TSE declared Arevalo the winner in the presidential election, the subordinate citizen registry revived an attempt to suspend Semilla. The fact that such conflicts have emerged not just between, but also within, political institutions suggests that the TSE in particular is the target of a massive amount of political pressure emanating from the judiciary. Having asserted that a party could not be suspended in the middle of an election campaign, the TSE did in fact suspend Semilla on Friday once elections were deemed to be over. This was subsequently reversed just days later by the TSE ‘temporarily’ lifting its disqualification of the party amid Arevalo’s outrage at what was transparently an ‘ongoing coup’.

This Shakespearean saga of events leaves Guatemalan democracy, and Arevalo, in a precarious position. The legal status of his party is sure to remain hotly contested, as indicated by tweets last week from opposition leader Sandra Torres alleging “anomalies'' in the election. Torres, for her part, has yet to officially concede the election. The reinstatement of Semilla is to remain in effect at least until the end of October, when the electoral period officially ends, and after which the TSE will have a week to disclose a final decision on the party’s status. In the meantime, Torres and Curruchiche have ramped up efforts to undermine the body by calling for the immunity of TSE magistrates to be rescinded, hoping to undermine its credibility as an independent body and staff it with more amenable judges.

The party’s temporary suspension meanwhile had resulted in their newly-elected members of Congress being converted into independents, although with the party’s temporary reinstatement Congress’s executive committee has promised to restore their affiliation. The catch though, is that it has stated it will only do this once it receives documentation from the citizen registry, which has already shown its hand as an obstructive, politically motivated body. Thus, peculiarly, while Arevalo’s status as president is now practically unimpeachable given the TSE’s verdict, his party’s position is decidedly less assured. This has led some commentators to theorise that should they fail to remove him from office, the opposition may turn their efforts to forcing Arevalo to govern as an independent.

Moreover, hampering Arevalo’s party in this way would not only make it difficult for Arevalo to implement his legislative agenda; it would also prevent his representatives from sitting on congressional committees and would effectively leave him leading a minority government. An even more serious possibility alluded to by Edmond Mulet, president of the Congress, is that the Attorney General’s office may succeed in arguing that since the party was improperly registered, its election, and therefore Arevalo’s, is rendered null and void. All this suggests Arevalo is far from in the clear, as he is not due to be sworn in until January next year.

For his part, Arevalo represents an interesting confluence of continuity and change in Guatemalan politics. He is the son of the country’s first democratically elected president, yet during this election was generally considered to have been a political outsider. His grassroots campaign, with an emphasis on eliminating corruption, and his response to establishment efforts to stymie his progress nevertheless suggest that he is a skilled political operator. But this is not surprising when we place Arevalo not just in the footsteps of his father, but also in the context of Guatemala’s fraught political history. Arevalo Sr. was the first democratically elected president of Guatemala, and his successor would be deposed in a US-backed coup in 1954 that gave rise to a bloody civil war lasting more than 35 years. Though elections in the country are “generally free” (Freedom House), Guatemalan democracy is relatively young, still bears the marks of political trauma, and needs to be protected. This election also adds another detail to a larger regional picture. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a resurgence of left-wing populist parties in Latin America, dubbed the ‘Pink Tide’. The resurgence of post-Cold War populist left-wing political movements was exemplified by the ascendancy of figures such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and Lula da Silva in Brazil. Riding on the back of historic low U.S. interest rates and a booming global economy, the future appeared bright. But during the 2000s many such leaders fell into disrepute on account of corruption, political violence, or economic stagnation.

The differences between this ‘first wave’ at the turn of the century, and the current ‘second wave’ that appeared to gather pace from 2018 , do hold promise for Latin American social democracy, but also substantial challenges. This wave has been fed in part by a strong anti-incumbency bias, particularly post-Covid, suggesting it may be more short-lived and less ideologically driven. Compare, for example, the strong anti-imperialist discourse which dominated the first wave and is less prominent today. While in the early 2000s many socialist leaders rode to power on the back of a commodity boom, today the economic climate looks much harsher. The onset of the pandemic came while many countries in the region were still emerging from the ‘lost decade’ following the financial crisis of 2008. Popular demands for rapid development and infrastructure may therefore only be satisfied gradually and in part. And the divides between the democrats and the authoritarians, as well as between the populists of the left and the technocrats of the centre, may suggest that the ‘Pink Tide’ is not and never was one singular phenomenon, but instead a more nebulous set of tendencies.

One positive is that leaders such as Arevalo and others appear to genuinely recognize the corrosive effects that deep-seated corruption has had on national governments. Furthermore, while Washington may remain concerned about budding Chinese influence in Latin America, leftist politics in the region operates in a space that is long-clear of Soviet hangovers. Today, leftist politics is more pragmatic, and is more principally concerned with furthering national development whilst avoiding what they view as the excesses of neoliberalism.

It remains to be seen whether this latest era of successful Latin American leftist parties - barely even a generation removed from the previous one - can persist in the face of its current challenges. A more difficult economic climate post-Covid, increased political polarisation, and growth rates over the past decade well below the global average are all likely to have an impact on the policies and stability of governments across the continent.

Despite all this, however, Latin America remains probably the most promising candidate for democratic development outside of Europe and the United States. The outcome of the electoral dispute in Guatemala may serve as an indicator for whether this wave will continue to climb, or whether, as Reuters remarked last December, it has hit its ‘high-water mark’.


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