An anti-corruption candidate who will run in Guatemala’s runoff election has said he fears “criminal political groups” are trying to stop him from running for president after a court suspended first-round results.
“Guatemala’s democracy is at terrible risk,” Bernardo Arévalo, 64, told the British newspaper Financial Times. “We fear that this [suspensão] is opening the door to simply see what happens down the road to try to stop us from getting to the second round.”
Arévalo came second, by surprise, in the first round of presidential elections last month. That earned her a runoff spot in August against former first lady Sandra Torres.
Securing a runoff spot has also put Arévalo in the firing line of some of the country’s political and business elite, who analysts say are intent on maintaining the status quo in Central America’s biggest economy.
A group of ten political parties filed legal challenges against the results of the first round, alleging irregularities in the counting process, and on Saturday (1O), Guatemala’s superior court ordered the suspension of official results pending a five-day review. This prompted the US government to express “deep concern”.
Arévalo said the objections have no legal basis because the deadline for filing complaints has passed. He fears the court’s ruling could signal a broader effort to help the ruling party’s third-place candidate, Manuel Conde, or even delay the process for Congress to choose a new temporary leader.
Arévalo said Guatemala’s political parties are “the expression of a conspiracy of criminal political groups with diverse interests” who “refused to lose control of the system”.
The current president, conservative Alejandro Giammattei, is expected to step down under Guatemala’s current single-term system.
In the June election, nearly a quarter of the ballots were left blank or crossed out amid public discontent, and no candidate won more than 16% of the vote after a bruising campaign in which four candidates were excluded for various technical reasons.
The center-left party UNE, whose candidate Torres was the first, is one of the parties that filed the lawsuit. Analysts say anti-Arévalo groups are likely more comfortable with Torres.
Manuel Archila, general secretary of the Cabal party – one of 10 who contested the first round results – said he still believes the second round should be between Torres and Arévalo, and that any inconsistencies should be resolved transparently.
Election observers for the Organization of American States said there was no reason to suspect sufficient irregularities to alter the result, and the review ordered by the constitutional court is not provided for in Guatemalan law.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that his administration is “deeply concerned” about efforts to interfere in Guatemala’s elections. “Attacking the June 25 election would be a serious threat to democracy with far-reaching implications,” he said.
Guatemala, which ended a brutal 36-year civil war in 1996, has a stable economy but high levels of poverty and malnutrition that have driven more than 230,000 citizens illegally crossing the US border in 2022.
Arévalo, an “outsider” badly placed in the polls before the vote, said: “In these elections the country can start to correct the course and stop this process of deterioration that we are in. […] People keep fleeing the country for a future in America because this country doesn’t offer them that.”
His party, the Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement), has its origins in what some have called the “Guatemalan Spring,” protests against political corruption in the country, which were revealed by a UN-backed investigative body.
Since that body was suddenly closed in 2019, dozens of journalists, former prosecutors and judges involved in its work have been arrested or fled into exile. Arévalo, who participated in the protests, wants to work with the former employees to create a new anti-corruption system. “They are the Guatemalans who best understand how the corrupt takeover of the system is working,” he said.
The election also raises foreign policy questions. Guatemala is one of the few countries in the region that maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan, an island considered a rebel province by Beijing. Panama, El Salvador and Honduras have transferred their relations to China in recent years. Arévalo wants to strengthen ties with the Chinese, but said he will base the decision on what is best for the country.
Arévalo, who was born in exile in Uruguay, said he was a social democrat in favor of a regulated market economy. He would not raise taxes, but he would fight tax evasion, while exploring public-private partnerships for infrastructure projects.
Arévalo said that the last three governments have witnessed a democratic deterioration and he hopes that the Superior Electoral Court will not allow any more illegalities. “What guarantees are there if the electoral system, which was almost the last guarantee to generate some kind of solution, is lost?”, he asks.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves