Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Who Is Positioned to Become Guatemala’s Next President?

Photo of Sandra Torres Former First Lady Sandra Torres was the top vote-getter in Sunday’s presidential election in Guatemala. But she now faces a runoff against former diplomat Bernardo Arévalo. // File Photo: Facebook Page of Sandra Torres.

Former Guatemalan First Lady Sandra Torres won the most votes in the first round of the country’s presidential election on Sunday. However, with just 15 percent of the vote, Torres fell far short of the more than 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff and will face another center-left candidate, Bernardo Arévalo, in the second round on Aug. 20. What factors will determine who wins the election in August? What explains the support for Arévalo, who had not been polling in the top tier of candidates before the first round? What were the most important results in Guatemala’s congressional and mayoral elections, which also happened on Sunday?

Juan Carlos Zapata S., executive director of FUNDESA in Guatemala City: “Guatemala had peaceful, transparent and free elections on Sunday, a true example for the region. Two candidates will be competing in the runoff, each trying to capture the support of voters who cast null or blank ballots during the first round. Voters have become increasingly frustrated with political corruption and are looking for results to some of the key developmental bottlenecks: urbanization, infrastructure, job creation, security, justice, human capital and transparency. Each candidate will have to convince the fragmented and disenfranchised voter base that they can deliver concrete results and not just promises. The support for Arévalo can be explained by a young urban generation that voted for the Semilla Movement and which was not captured in the polls. His campaign strategy went beyond traditional politics by leveraging social media. Three barred candidates also increased the protest vote. Regarding Congress, it will be interesting to see many political newcomers enter the arena of a very divided legislature, trying to negotiate for the benefit of their constituents, in a system that is very hard to operate. The mayoral elections had mixed results, with close to 40 percent of the municipalities won by Vamos. It will be an opportunity for dialogue with the next government on how to increase infrastructure projects, strengthen institutions and generate capabilities to work together with the private sector, academia and civil society organizations on initiatives that promote more investment in the country.”

Mike Allison, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Scranton: “These elections took place amid deteriorating political conditions following the jailing and exile of journalists and judicial sector professionals, attacks against civil society, the arbitrary disqualification of candidates at all levels, pervasive government corruption and high levels of citizen frustration. However, within Guatemala’s notoriously fragmented party system, UNE’s Sandra Torres and Semilla’s Bernardo Arévalo will provide voters with a referendum on the status quo. UNE abandoned its leftist credentials long ago as it veered sharply to the right and situated itself within the Pact of the Corrupt. Now representing the status quo, Torres retains widespread support in rural areas of the country that benefited from social programs she oversaw as first lady more than 10 years ago. Semilla and its supporters, on the other hand, tend to be younger, more professional and urban. To the extent we can draw any conclusions, Semilla capitalized on its anticorruption bona fides, outsider status, Thelma Cabrera’s disqualification and Arévalo’s name recognition. Even though Arévalo only captured 12 percent of the national vote, Semilla should be favored to win the runoff given high levels of Sandrafobia and null votes, which surpassed the number of votes any candidate received in the first round and which are unlikely to break for her. While Giammattei will leave office in a few months, Vamos has spent the last several years burrowing into state institutions. Surprisingly, it will control roughly a quarter of the seats in the next Congress (depending on how transfuguismo develops) and an even larger share of municipal offices.” 

Naomi Roht-Arriaza, distinguished professor of law emeritus at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco: “The big surprise here was the second-place (or third, if you count the null or spoiled ballots) finish of Bernardo Arévalo. Semilla’s strategy of retail, face-to-face politics in small cities and towns as well as the capital paid off. It traded on Arévalo’s name recognition as the son of a beloved former president as well as widespread disgust with the country’s corrupt political system. The emptying out of the countryside as violence and poverty push people to leave may have also favored Semilla, as the rural vote was considered the natural base of Sandra Torres of the UNE party. Going forward, the physical and legal security of Semilla activists will be a main concern. The party’s initial, popular candidate for Guatemala City mayor was disqualified and jailed (his replacement came in third, after the incumbent), and its 2019 presidential candidate fled after death threats. Semilla is now in the crosshairs of the so-called ‘Pact of the Corrupt’ which has dismantled the independence of the prosecutor’s office and the courts. Torres, despite her progressive-sounding rhetoric, has been accused in the past of making deals with the ‘Pact,’ with drug cartels, and with the military. The electoral tribunal just last week was accused of taking bribes from officialdom. The other concern is Congress, where Torres’ UNE and the current president’s party will have the largest blocs. Semilla would have to find allies to pass legislation. But for now, the party’s immediate challenge will be convincing the 17 percent of voters who spoiled their ballots, and the much larger group that didn’t vote, that there is hope for change.” 

Donald J. Planty, president of Planty & Associates and former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala: “It is no surprise that Sandra Torres led in the first round—she had the highest name recognition among the various candidates stemming from her time as the wife of former President Álvaro Colom. Her unsuccessful presidential candidacies in 2015 and 2019 kept her name in front of Guatemalan voters. Torres is the odds-on favorite to win in the second round on Aug. 20 despite her checkered background – she was charged with campaign finance violations in the past, and her administration of social programs during the Colom administration drew corruption charges. If she is elected, we can expect more of the same in Guatemala. That is, she is unlikely to introduce the broad political and economic reforms that Guatemala sorely needs, particularly a serious anticorruption program that will begin to rein in the malfeasance that erodes trust in democracy and exacerbates Guatemala’s economic and social inequalities. Bernardo Arévalo, however, might bring some refreshing change to Guatemala. While his name is not widely recognized abroad, Arévalo is a well-known, historic surname in Guatemala that connotes democracy and good governance. Arévalo’s father, Juan José Arévalo, returned from exile in Argentina by popular demand to win Guatemala’s first democratic election in 1945, ending years of dictatorship in the country. He was an enormously popular president and is considered the father of Guatemalan democracy. His son offers Guatemalans the prospect of meaningful reform, which will appeal to a broad swath of the electorate.” 


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