Earlier this summer, Guatemala held its general elections which resulted in two presidential candidates earning enough votes to go on to the August 20th election: Sandra Torres of the conservative National Unity of Hope (UNE) party and Bernardo Arévalo of the progressive Movimiento Semilla party. Throughout the 2023 election season and in the aftermath of the general elections, it is evident that this pivotal process was marred by controversies, corruption, and confusion. To clear things up and learn more, Mijente hosted two livestream conversations on “¿Que Pasa en Guatemala?”. Below, you can learn more through our short recap, and find the full conversation here (currently in Spanish with English captions coming soon).
The Political Landscape and the Electoral Governing Bodies
Our first interview on Monday featured Maríajosé España, an experienced independent journalist known for her insightful analysis of social and political issues in Guatemala. She’s been reporting directly about what’s been happening on the ground these last eight months, and she joined us to share about the social and political context that have defined these elections.
España set the scene for us: the political landscape in Guatemala has been anything but straightforward. There was a wide range of controversies and irregularities casting shadows over the entire 2023 electoral process.
In the beginning, there was some sense of optimism for a fair and transparent election through their independent governing body. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) is the highest authority on electoral affairs, an independent body of political control. As stated by España, TSE has “an obligation to protect the people’s vote and defend the decisions of the majority”. But voter optimism and trust in this system didn’t last very long, due to various conflicting actions on the part of TSE.
For one, the secrecy and lack of transparency displayed by TSE officials contradicted their mandate to uphold the integrity of the voting process. Keeping voters and the public at large from accessing information became the game. This shadiness eroded public trust and contributed to the skepticism surrounding the legitimacy of the elections.
They didn’t give press conferences. Meetings that were open to the public were suddenly closed. –Maríajosé España
On top of that, the press revealed that two of the five TSE magistrates falsified academic credentials before assuming office. This highlighted a disturbing lack of accountability within the institution responsible for overseeing the elections. Unsurprisingly, such actions raised questions about the qualifications of those in charge among voters. Additionally it underscored a culture of unchecked power and a disregard for the standards of public service.
A Continuing Trend of Corruption and Confusion
The TSE presented a proposal to introduce new software programs to revolutionize the voting process, generating considerable controversy. As España shared, this would have completely shifted the way Guatemalan voters engaged in the electoral process since 1986. The lack of transparency in the decision-making behind this proposal generated suspicion around 1) ulterior motives and 2) allocation of resources. Ultimately, the proposal was not approved. This, along with everything else, became indicative of a broader issue where the authorities’ intentions and actions were concealed from public scrutiny.
Then, there came the discrepancies in the approval and rejection of presidential candidacies, which further reflected a flawed and inconsistent vetting process. “There’s one example that I really like to mention because it’s just so exemplary of what’s happening,” Mariajose continued. “The candidacy of Carlos Preciado Navarijo for mayor of Ocós, San Marcos.” The same Carlos Preciado Navarijo that was extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges in 2021. The fact that Navarijo’s candidacy was accepted while other eligible candidates were rejected revealed a shocking lack of due diligence and, to Guatemalan voters everywhere, undermined the credibility of the entire electoral process.
One notable rejection came against the Movement for the Liberation of People (MLP) party, a group of leftist, indigenous, and deep community roots. Under suspicious circumstances presidential candidate Thelma Cabrera and vice presidential candidate Jordán Rodas were banned from participating. The courts alleged that Rodas hadn’t notified the TSE of a pending legal case and he was not “suitable” for office. However, as shared by España, the TSE was purposefully misinterpreting the case, which had, in fact, already been resolved. In the end, the courts denied MLP’s appeal of the ban, and citizens took to the streets in protest of the decision. It was clear to all that this ruling “undermine[d] the rights of all Guatemalans to participate in free and fair elections”.
The blatant corruption isn’t the only thing that had voters talking. Igniting a surge of discussion is the recent and unexpected success of the Semilla party. Initially dismissed as a minor political player, the party was constantly overlooked in debates and public forums. Semilla broke new ground by defying predictions it would place eighth at best, and instead advanced to the second round of elections. Semilla ultimately outperformed candidates like Zury Rios and Manuel Conde, conservatives seemingly backed by the entire political establishment. In a shocking turn of events, Semilla also managed to secure an impressive 24 seats in Congress. This is a sharp jump from their previous win of 9 seats in the last election.
Semilla’s unexpected surge signifies a sharp shift from the status quo – it’s now the third-strongest party in Guatemala’s political landscape.
What is being said a lot now, is that the system itself became its own downfall — by throwing out all these candidates….And so it was. They cleared the field for Semilla. They didn’t see it coming. If they had seen it coming, they would have taken them down too. But it was a surprise for everybody. – Maríajosé España
A Better Guatemala, for All, is Possible
But if there’s one thing to take away from Maríajosé España’s interview, it’s that we all have a role to play in ensuring a more just and equitable future for Guatemala, especially those with roots in the country. “We don’t think about those who were obligated to migrate elsewhere. But they’re there. And they’re connected, they’re worried about what’s happening in the country. And what’s happening to their families who remain in Guatemala. I believe it’s really important to engage this way, and I’d invite you to stay informed.”
A key piece of staying informed is also being willing to call out misinformation, which has become rampant in the last eight months. “A part of combating it is not just being aware of it, but also helping to share information that we see is real. And so I’d invite you to keep talking to each other, and share information that is verified to help combat it. And keep generating these spaces of conversation,” España emphasized.
With the elections less than a week away, España got real about the Guatemala that the winner, whether it be Sandra Torres or Bernardo Arévalo, will inherit: a nation grappling with a broad spectrum of issues, with eroded public trust in the institutions that are supposed to serve them.
At the end of the day though, Maríajosé España reminded us that the change Guatemala needs “will have to be everyone’s effort… It’s not just about candidates or politicians who win, it’s also about our efforts in our spaces.”
Note: Want to learn more about the Semilla party and their vision for a Guatemala that serves the people and “generates prosperity instead of inequality and poverty”? Check out our recap of the second interview of the “¿Que Pasa en Guatemala?” series, with Ronalth Ochaeta Aguilar.