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The people have spoken: Persisting threats to Arévalo’s transition to power in Guatemala

Despite Bernard Arévalo’s landslide victory in the 2023 run-off elections in Guatemala, significant opposition from members of the country’s political and economic elite have cast doubt on whether outgoing president Alejandro Giammattei will facilitate a smooth transition of power in January 2023. Continued politically motivated investigations by the attorney general and her prosecutors have prompted ongoing civil unrest and political instability, writes Shannon Lorimer.

While Guatemala has nominally been a democracy for over 30 years, extreme levels of state capture by elites has weakened the country’s democratic institutions and driven civil unrest. Bernardo Arévalo’s progressive, anti-corruption electoral campaign struck a chord with voters exasperated by widespread government corruption and impunity. This popular support for change catapulted him into the top two candidates for president in the June 2023 elections, and in August 2023, he won the run-off elections against former First Lady Sandra Torres by a landslide. His electoral victory unnerved President Alejandro Giammattei’s administration, who responded with ongoing attempts to undermine the electoral process, prompting Arévalo’s extensive support base to mount large-scale protests in support of democracy.

Politically motivated attacks target Arévalo’s Movimiento Semilla

In the lead lead-up to the election, Guatemala’s courts disqualified any candidates who ran on anti-corruption platforms and who seemed likely to win the popular vote. Arévalo’s unanticipated success, having polled at 0.7 percent before the June election, triggered a backlash from the incumbent administration and its allies, who for years have benefitted from a previously untouchable network of patronage and corruption. Arévalo’s presidency threatens to undo this entire network. Once he emerged as a stronger contender, both he and his party, Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement), became the target of several politically motivated investigations, including attempts to suspend his party for allegedly falsifying signatures when it formed in 2017. Following domestic and international pressure, this attempted suspension was blocked by the Supreme Court of Justice. The attacks continued after he won the run-off elections, and despite Giammattei committing to a peaceful handover of power, several international figures have cautioned of the current administration’s reluctance to relinquish control of the country. Brazilian President Lula da Silva, warned of the risk of a coup that would prevent the president-elect from taking office. Francisco Mora, the US’s ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), warned against attempts to undermine democracy in Guatemala, and denounced efforts to suspend Arévalo’s political party as anti-democratic.

The attacks have been spearheaded by Attorney General María Consuelo Porras. Porras took office in 2018 and was renominated by Giammattei as attorney general for a second four-year term in 2022, despite numerous allegations of corruption. Since taking office, she has continuously blocked and subverted corruption investigations in Guatemala to safeguard her political allies and curry political favour. Protesters are determined to see Porras removed from her position, but she has refused to resign. Giammattei in turn claims he is unable to fire her without interfering in her investigations. This is a convenient stance for him to take as Porras has been widely viewed as undermining the elections in service of Giammattei and his allies.

Protesters in stalemate with Giammattei administration

In response to the ongoing political attacks on Arévalo’s party and the electoral process, in the first half of October, protesters comprising thousands of farmers and members of indigenous groups established more than 120 roadblocks around the country, blocking traffic, closing shops and subsequently disrupting the supply of fuel and food, bringing the country to a standstill. According to Luis Pacheco, the head of 48 Cantones de Totonicapán, one of the largest indigenous organisations in the country, the aim of the protests was to paralyse the country indefinitely. But, while protesters are on track to bring this mandate to fruition, Giammattei’s administration has maintained its stance and refused to concede to the demands of the protesters, warning that riot police will forcibly dismantle or remove roadblocks. The deployment of police has escalated the protests, causing clashes between police and activists.

Limited impact of previous anti-government protests

In 2015, tens of thousands of Guatemalans participated in similar anti-government protests, which at the time were unprecedented. Protesters demanded the resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina after a UN commission exposed his involvement in a corruption scandal. The protests were prompted by messages and hashtags on social media and drew participation mostly from members of the urban middle class. Although the protests were successful in ousting Molina from the presidency, the opposition lacked a better candidate to replace him, and subsequently the protest action failed to elicit more long-lasting change. Molina was replaced by Jimmy Morales, who faced numerous allegations of corruption during his time in office and terminated an international commission investigating high-level corruption in a move suspected to shield him and his family from prosecution. Guatemala has continued to experience democratic backsliding in the subsequent years, continually falling short of democratic norms according to several global indices.

Since taking office, Attorney General Porras has continuously blocked and subverted corruption investigations in Guatemala to safeguard her political allies and curry political favour. Protesters are determined to see Porras removed from her position, but she has refused to resign.

The October 2023 protests have a few key differences which have the potential to translate into more meaningful change. These protests have been led by the 48 Cantones de Totonicapán and have been more widespread and coordinated than the 2015 protests. They have featured a wider demographic that includes indigenous groups, farmers, students, middle class, public sector and informal sector workers. Protests have extended further than just the major cities, with numerous demonstrations and blockades in rural areas. Unlike the 2015 protests, the political aims of the demonstrations have also been clearly defined. Protesters want to see a smooth transition of power and the resignation of prosecutors attempting to undermine the election results. Finally, Arévalo’s support base is vast. If the judiciary or congress continue to push a legislative coup, the public outcry and disruptions to the economy will be too significant to ignore.

Although Giammattei has publicly committed to a peaceful handover of power in January, his silence on the attorney general’s ongoing investigations into the Semillo Movement has raised concerns about continued attempts to cling to power. But with such broad public support for Arévalo, attempts by Giammattei’s administration to subvert the democratic process, even through a legislative coup, are unlikely to succeed.

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