Guatemala Slouching toward Democracy

Electoral Growing Pains Are Part of the Republic's Maturation

Guatemala is slouching toward democracy. In the last decade, the United States has dissipated this erstwhile enormous political capital.

Guatemala just held elections on June 25. (@TSEGuatemala)

Lee en español.

The seedy attempts by brazenly politicized institutions of US justice to impede Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy are adversely affecting US foreign policy. The whole world sees the sham legal cases against the former president and notes how the United States handles its elections.

As a case in point, Guatemala just held elections on June 25. They quickly became mired in legal controversies. The US government has declared its interest in the matter (the State Department and the embassy), expressing concern about the very things that plague US elections.

Here is the problem for the country that presents itself as the leader of the free world. One would expect the United States to have credibility to speak on the importance of free and fair elections and transparent, accountable institutions of government to implement the policies of each duly elected government, within the confines of the US Constitution.

We used to have that, and it was the crux of our soft power: our ability to achieve desired outcomes through conviction rather than coercion. We no longer have that. We threw it away.

In the last decade, the United States has dissipated this erstwhile enormous political capital. Seeing how the United States handles its elections, either no foreign country believes a word the United States has to say, or they wait until US elections put forth a government more favorable to foreign interests. The whole world, literally, watches the US elections. They know, and learn, full well the tricks and manipulations of the electoral process that go on in the United States.

Not good.

This is evident in Guatemala, now heading for its runoff presidential elections between two left-wing parties on August 20. The candidates are Sandra Torres of the UNE party and Bernardo Arévalo of the Semilla (seed) party.

Bernardo Arévalo’s advancement to the runoff shocked all the purported experts. However, experts on the left were quick to champion the results, saying Arevalo’s meteoric rise reflected the will of the people. In fact, he is the Guatemalan political candidate advancing with the lowest percentage of votes (11.8 percent) in the modern era. Sandra Torres did not do much better (15.86 percent).

Null votes and blank votes—17 and 7 percent, respectively—accounted for almost a quarter of votes on June 25. Guatemalan voters are not happy about their political options, and nobody speaks for the people. Whatever the result of the runoff, the next Guatemalan government will lack a mandate for radical changes.

In light of the stunning performance of the Semilla party, people on the right took their enormous disappointment and political fears to court. Allegations of fraud and legal challenges to the preliminary results announced by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) immediately surfaced.

This is allowed by Guatemala’s Electoral Law (known as LEPP). However, things did not turn out as they had hoped. What eventuated also conflicted with the media narrative championed by the US State Department (DOS), which holds that a “pacto de corruptos” controls all political and legal outcomes in Guatemala.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) and its subordinate body, the Citizens’ Registry (RdC), reviewed the electoral results, as ordered by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court (CC). The TSE then made the results official, thereby formally opening the runoff phase of the elections between the two leading left-wing candidates.

A barrage of communiqués from the Guatemalan private sector, which Juan González of DOS has collectively branded as “predatory elites,” defended the electoral process and called for recognition of the results. The organized private sector’s role in defending its main political rivals’ rights to govern over them shocked many in Guatemala, as well as so-called international experts.

Even Will Freeman of the Council of Foreign Relations was forced to recognize this fact: Guatemala’s electoral institutions produced outcomes contrary to the opinions of international experts. The Carnegie Endowment, for example, had predicted “farcical elections” on the very eve of June 25. This demonstrated once again that so many of the sought-after commentators on Guatemala know nothing.

The electoral controversy in Guatemala has gotten more dramatic. A lower judge (Freddy Orellana) ordered the RdC to suspend Semilla in a case brought forth alleging fraudulent signatures used to qualify Semilla as a new political party in 2019. A guilty verdict would have the effect of removing Semilla’s legal personhood and the ability of its 23 newly elected congressional representatives to hold committee posts in the next Congress. This would adversely affect Arevalo’s ability to govern.

However, the RdC chief Ramiro Muñoz refused to suspend Semilla and formalized the results as per the CC’s instructions. He then promptly went on vacation and is reported to have left the country. Judge Orellana then proceeded to grant the Public Ministry’s (MP) petition to pursue the removal of Muñoz’s political immunity, exposing him to criminal liability.

Removal of political immunity is a serious matter in Guatemala, where the abuse of preventive prison runs rampant, as Guatemalan journalist Alfred Kaltschmitt has noted. The more the accused fights for his rights in a competent court of law, the more time he spends in jail, possibly even more time than if he had been found guilty. The bogus case against Guatemalan Army Colonel Juan Chiroy, celebrated among the Guatemalan and US left, is just one such example.

What can we make of all of this? Nothing. It is not our business but Guatemala’s. Guatemala will figure it out.

Guatemala is muddling through on her path to democratic consolidation. Her story is not just one of democratic backsliding, but also one of gradual advancement. She does not need advice from self-styled experts. The same goes for the US government, which cannot get its own elections right. The United States is guilty of ruining the credibility of its once cherished institutions for partisan political purposes, and US interference has wreaked havoc on a host of foreign nations.

US diplomats are fond of saying that the eyes of the world are on the United States, that countries all over the world look to us. They are right. Other governments just do not like what they see. The worst of them take the worst of our lessons, and we have plenty of bad lessons to give.

This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily the views of the Impunity Observer.

Nicholas Virzi

Nicholas Virzi is dean of the ASTRA Institute for Leadership and Governance.

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