A Crucial Test for Democracy in Guatemala’s Elections

Saunders Portrait 2022
File photo: Sir Ronald Saunders.
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By Sir Ronald Sanders

Guatemala, the largest country in Central America, is undergoing a critical test of its commitment to democracy and the rule of law in its presidential elections. The outcome will shape the nation’s political and social stability, economic development, and international standing, particularly within the Organization of American States (OAS).

The general elections on June 25 concluded successfully, but no candidate secured the required majority to replace the incumbent President Alejandro Giammattei, whose term ends in January 2024.

Surprising many, Bernardo Arévalo of the Movimiento Semilla party emerged as the second-leading candidate, campaigning against corruption and gaining strong grassroots support.

This development clearly caused consternation among persons in the executive and judicial branches of the government who may have felt threatened by the possibility of Arévalo winning run-off elections against Sandra Torres, the leader of Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza party, scheduled for August 20.

The President of Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Margaret Macaulay, described the sequence of disturbing events that followed in this way: “On July 12th, on the same day that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal ratified the validity of the first round of the presidential election, the Public Prosecutor’s Office by means of its Special Prosecutor´s Office Against Corruption and Crime, announced a criminal investigation against the political party Movimiento Semilla [-] Also, at the request of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, a criminal judge had ordered the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to provisionally suspend the party’s legal status to prevent its members from “participating in any subsequent political events”.

The IACHR Chair also noted that “on July 21st, arrest warrants were issued for members of Movimiento Semilla whose headquarters were raided, and an arrest warrant was issued for an official of the Citizen Registry of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, and new raids on this facilities took place”.

The account of these events was substantiated by Dr. Irma Elizabeth Palencia Orellana, the Chief Magistrate of The Supreme Electoral Court of Guatemala, who told a meeting of the OAS Permanent Council on July 26 that “actions were brought against the Supreme Electoral Court’s Register of Citizens, which included arbitrary searches and requests”, including  “retention of workers for more than ten hours straight, behind closed doors; the use of ski masks and firearms, when our staff are unarmed civilians and ours are administrative offices”.

Dr Orellana made the point that these actions unjustifiably violated constitutional provisions.  She also drew specific attention to Article 92 of the electoral law which states that “a party may not be suspended after an election has been called and until after the election has taken place.”

All of this caused great alarm among member states of the OAS which, along with the European Union, had sent Electoral Observation Missions to Guatemala.  Neither mission found any evidence of fraud or major irregularities that would call the elections results into question.  The OAS mission warned that “feeding a narrative of fraud without evidentiary support undermines the will of the people and democratic institutions.”

Against this background, on July 26, the OAS Permanent Council welcomed an invitation from the President of Guatemala to the Secretary-General, Luis Almagro, to “meet with government authorities and state institutions regarding the electoral process”.  It was also particularly helpful that the letter also noted “that this visit does not interfere with the work that the Electoral Observation Mission of the Organization of American States will carry out”.

This invitation is a positive step by the Guatemalan government, demonstrating a willingness to dialogue and, hopefully, to explore ways of ensuring that clear guarantees will be given, allowing the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to conduct the run-off presidential elections with the same impartiality that it employed in the conduct of the general elections on June 25.

Equally important will be a commitment that the current improper use of the legal system to alter or influence the election result, as described by Chief Magistrate, Dr. Orellana, will cease.

Antigua and Barbuda, Canada, Costa Rica, Colombia, and the United States played a leading role in advancing concerns about the threats to Guatemala’s electoral process, a cornerstone of democracy in the hemisphere.

Respecting the will of the people through free and fair elections is paramount to protect human and political rights from being overshadowed by dictatorship and chaos.

Secretary-General Almagro will go to Guatemala on August 1, just 19 days before the scheduled run-off presidential elections on August 20. The success of his discussions will be pivotal to the future of democracy in Guatemala.

In this critical moment, the Guatemalan authorities must demonstrate unwavering commitment to democracy, transparency, and the rule of law, not only for the nation’s sake but also for the trust of the international community.

(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own. Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com)

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