Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Who Has the Edge in Guatemala’s Presidential Race?

Photo of the National Palace in Guatemala City Guatemalans go to the polls on June 25 to select their next president. The National Palace in Guatemala City is pictured. // File Photo: Guatemalan Government.

Guatemala’s presidential race kicked off on March 27, a day after the electoral authority finalized its approved candidate list. Critics denounced the authority’s disqualification of some candidates while allowing some others to run. The candidate line-up by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal initiated the three-month campaign to succeed conservative President Alejandro Giammattei, who is constitutionally prohibited from seeking a second term. Who are the front-runners of the country’s presidential race? What is at stake for the country? Which issues will be key in the campaign, and what factors will most sway voters?

Regina Bateson, assistant professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa: “Elections are usually seen as the cornerstone of democracy. However, in Guatemala this year, the upcoming presidential election could weaken an already-fragile democracy. How is this perverse outcome possible? It starts with Guatemala’s electoral authorities, who have taken an aggressive, interventionist and seemingly biased approach to determining who is allowed to run for office in the first place. These actions are harmful for democracy in multiple ways. As the locus of control shifts from the ballot box to behind-the-scenes bureaucrats, voters play less and less of a role in deciding who governs them. In a country long wracked by political cynicism and disengagement, this risks further alienating the very citizens whose engagement Guatemala so desperately needs. But who could blame them? This year the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) rejected the candidacy of the country’s most exciting, transformational presidential contender, Thelma Cabrera, while allowing others with questionable pasts to run, including Zury Ríos and Sandra Torres. The net result is that Guatemalans are left with the same old slate of uninspiring choices, even less confidence in their country’s institutions and a democracy that feels ever more like a façade. Although this year’s election was supposed to bring positive change to Guatemala, it may end up reinforcing the notion that the country is ruled by a ‘pacto de corruptos,’ rather than by the people.”

Donald J. Planty, president of Planty & Associates and former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala: “The candidate lineup for Guatemala’s June 25 presidential election represents the continuation of the ‘old guard’ and business as usual in Guatemalan politics. None of the candidates will bring to office the political, economic and social reform program that the country so desperately needs. This is particularly true of the rule of law sector where Guatemala needs to enact basic changes to root out embedded corruption and dysfunction. Guatemala does not have a well-developed political party system that can bring in ‘new blood’—young, inspired leaders who might break with the worn-out policies of the past—and therefore meaningful change is unlikely. Guatemalan national elections are usually won by the candidate with the widest name recognition. This fact would favor candidates like Sandra Torres and Zury Ríos who seem to have the strongest popular following. Edmond Mulet, a perennial candidate who has a lower profile, will probably not succeed. In campaigns that are essentially popularity contests, pressing public policy issues usually take a back seat. Guatemala’s systemic corruption and the ongoing marginalization of the Mayan community need to be addressed, but neither Torres nor Ríos has the ideas needed to break with the past. Therefore, we are likely to see more of the same widespread institutional corruption if either candidate wins the presidency. Guatemalan national life is controlled by a small, powerful economic-political elite that pursues a narrow, self-centered agenda that excludes most of the country’s Indigenous Maya population of some nine million people. Unless fundamental change comes to Guatemala, the country will stay firmly ensconced on its downward trajectory.”

Mike Allison, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at The University of Scranton: “After eight years of democratic backsliding, Guatemalans return to the polls in June. While they might hope to turn the page on a difficult few years, the pre-campaign and early days of official campaigning provide little evidence that will be the case. Under outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei, anti-democratic forces intensified their assault against courts, prosecutors’ offices, human rights defenders and the media. Dozens of highly trained professionals have gone into exile to escape further persecution. Those who did not seek sanctuary abroad, like senior anti-corruption prosecutor Virginia Laparra and El Periódico owner and founder José Rubén Zamora, linger in the country’s prisons on dubious charges leveled against them for working to hold public officials accountable. They add to a long list of Guatemalans who have abandoned the country. Like previous campaigns, Guatemalans will be looking for candidates with attractive solutions to worsening levels of insecurity, economic deprivation, governance and corruption. Leading presidential candidates across the conservative spectrum include Edmond Mulet (Movimiento Cabal), Zury Ríos (Partido Valor), and Sandra Torres (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza). Guatemalans, however, are right to have little confidence in the process given the corruption in the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and its highly questionable ruling that prevented the strongest leftist alternative in the race, Thelma Cabrera and the Movimiento para la Liberación de los Pueblos (MLP), from participating. In all likelihood, clientelistic networks will drive a sizable share of the electorate to vote, UNE will win a plurality of Congressional seats, and Rios and Torres will advance to a runoff.” 

Joséphine Lechartre, Ph.D candidate in peace studies and political science at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame: “As of early April, the front-runners of the Guatemalan presidential race, all experienced politicians, are Sandra Torres (UNE), Edmund Mulet (Cabal), and Zury Ríos (Valor). Each of the candidates’ platforms emphasize law and order against organized crime—the issue dearest to Guatemalan voters—anti-corruption action and social programs, including the development of basic infrastructures and better job opportunities. In spite of a general climate hostile to traditional elites, it is unlikely that outsider candidates will advance to the second round. The dire state of the economy, endemic corruption and disinformation campaigns targeting anti-corruption personnel have significantly eroded Guatemalans’ support for democracy, and more than half of the country’s citizens value a decent living standard more highly than a healthy democratic system (according to a 2021 Americas Barometer survey). On that matter, Torres emerges as the grand favorite. She boasts more than 20 years in politics, and the 2023 race is her sixth rodeo, including the campaign she organized for her then-husband Álvaro Colom. As a first lady (2008-2012), Sandra became the face of the popular ‘Mi Familia Progresa’ program, a mix of direct cash transfers and food distribution, which became one of the most powerful clientelistic networks of modern Guatemalan politics. Unsurprisingly, one of Torres’ campaign points for 2023 is the reactivation of the social program. Prior to the official beginning of the race, the UNE ostensibly updated lists of potential beneficiaries of the social program in several locations, predicting an important—and decisive—female vote in favor of Sandra.” 


Latin America Advisor logo.The Latin America Advisor features Q&A from leaders in politics, economics, and finance every business day. It is available to members of the Dialogue’s Corporate Program and others by subscription.

Related Links

Suggested Content

Can Spain Solve the Cuba Problem?

By all accounts, Spain wants to bring change to the European Union’s Cuba policy. In so doing, it is tackling a foreign policy challenge that often sheds more heat than light.


Obama & the Haitian Earthquake

When Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama quickly absorbed the depth of the tragedy and necessity of a robust U.S. response. Unless the U.S. adopts a proactive role, Haiti’s fragmented political landscape threatens to deteriorate into a political vacuum that will compound the current crisis.