Anti-Corruption Candidate Arévalo Wins Guatemalan Presidency. Can He Claim Office?

On August 20th, Bernardo Arévalo and his progressive anti-corruption platform prevailed in the Guatemalan presidential election. According to official data from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, he gained 58% of the vote, with his opponent, former first lady Sandra Torres, receiving 37%. But although Arévalo’s supporters have taken to the streets to celebrate his landslide win, there remains the possibility that he may not take office on January 14th, when he is set to be sworn in. Torres has not yet conceded the race, instead filing a complaint alleging election fraud.

In an Instagram post uploaded on August 25th, Torres called upon the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to investigate an alleged “series of irregularities” in the election data. In the same post, she asserts that Arévalo’s win should not be made official “until the truth of the facts recorded on 20th of August is clarified.”

Despite Torres having yet to recognize Arévalo’s victory, current president Alejandro Giammattei congratulated Arévalo on the social media platform X, previously known as Twitter, and indicated that he would like to work together to ensure an orderly and complete transfer of power.

In addition to the obstacle Torres presents, there have been several legal attempts to disqualify Arévalo’s party, Movimiento Semilla, or Seed Movement. In August, the attorney general’s office disclosed that it was investigating the legality of the party’s initial registration. Furthermore, the New York Times reported on August 20th that a prosecutor who previously attempted to suspend Arévalo’s party, though initially thwarted by Guatemala’s constitutional court, is once again seeking to ban Seed Movement, citing alleged irregularities in the signatures gathered to create the party. According to Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst at political risk consultancy firm Eurasia Group, “the ruling pact will likely continue to target electoral officials and Arévalo’s Semilla party with investigations ahead of January’s change in government.”

The independent Supreme Electoral Tribunal has already recognized the election results, along with many world leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden. Additionally, according to the Organization of American States (which employed a team of 86 election observers in Guatemala), the voting had gone smoothly, and Reuters reported on August 21st that the election “fulfilled all the demanding obligations.” To preserve democratic integrity in Guatemala and ensure a peaceful transfer of power, it is imperative that Torres accepts her loss and allows Arévalo to take office next month.

Regardless of whether Torres concedes, however, these attempts to prevent the transfer of power threaten to worsen the region’s democratic backsliding. Severe democratic erosion occurred under the current Giammattei administration, with numerous anti-corruption prosecutors, judges, and journalists fleeing the country as the government infiltrated the justice system and the attorney general’s office. As the nation stands, Guatemala is ranked 150th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2022.

Ana María Méndez Dardón, director of the thinktank Central America at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Reuters that she sees Arévalo fulfilling the role of a “transition government, to restore the democratic values that have been broken in Guatemala.” Although his victory is a step in the right direction on Guatemala’s journey towards democratic consolidation and ending corruption, the numerous roadblocks Arévalo faces before he is sworn in speak to the difficulties of maintaining democracy and respecting Guatemalans’ say in who heads their government.