- For the first time in Guatemalan history, the void votes beat every presidential candidate. That includes leftists Sandra Torres and Bernardo Arévalo—who will face each other in the August 20 runoff, assuming no further legal challenges.
- Two leading theories explain the large number of void votes in the Guatemalan presidential election: (1) the voters’ discontent with politicians and the lack of options that represent them and (2) three former presidential candidates—who the electoral authority banned from running in this election—promoting the void vote.
- The Semilla party’s attorney general, María Reyes, concedes the possibility of more than one fraudulent signature on the party’s registration documents. According to her, Semilla’s registration documents were poorly managed. However, she contends the inclusion of false members is common among all parties in Guatemala.
- Legal challenges and investigations have sparked negative reactions from local and foreign electoral observers such as the Organization of American States (OAS). However, some local civil-society organizations that advocate for the rule of law believe authorities must continue their investigations and enforce the law.
On June 25, 2023, Guatemala held the presidential election for the 2024-2028 administration. Beating every candidate, the void vote got 17.4 percent of the ballot, and the blank vote got 7 percent. Together, void and blank votes got 24.4 percent—way ahead of frontrunner Sandra Torres of the National Union for Hope party at 15.9 percent.
On July 1, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court (CC) ordered the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) to review the electoral results. One day later, the TSE announced the review would take five days. Although the TSE had constitutional authority to count all the votes again, the TSE never did—not even in the zones where tabulation irregularities were found.
On July 16, the TSE certified the electoral results, announcing the victory of 160 legislators and 20 members of the Central American Parliament. The presidential candidates who, at the time of this writing, will face each other in the August 20 runoff are Sandra Torres and Bernardo Arévalo. Arévalo’s Semilla party is under Public Ministry (MP) investigation for fraudulently padding the party’s membership list.
This investigation explains the ongoing Guatemalan electoral process and its main controversies, including Semilla’s legal challenges and the large number of void and blank votes. The Impunity Observer interviewed:
- Natalia Gámez, technical secretary at the Electoral Observer Mission (MOE-Gt);
- Diego Ronquillo, attorney general from the center-right Creo party;
- María Reyes, newly elected congresswoman from the progressive Semilla party;
- Giovanni Fratti, lawyer and independent journalist;
- José Luis González Dubón, litigator and former constitutional-law professor;
- the president of a local NGO for civilian engagement (who requested anonymity).
Every expert the Impunity Observer interviewed argued the Electoral Law, the candidate bans, and the TSE’s lack of effective planning and transparency have hampered the election.
The ongoing electoral process in Guatemala has been full of controversies, dating back to before the first round. In December 2022, the Impunity Observer reported multiple factors that could cloud the 2023 elections. These included: (1) the TSE’s suspension of multiple electoral candidates such as Roberto Arzú (Podemos) and Neto Bran (People’s Party) for allegedly campaigning before the official period, (2) the Electoral Law, which bans private funding and has vague definitions of terms such as “anticipated campaign,” and (3) the TSE’s unclear procurement processes for acquiring machines for balloting and identifying voters.
However, multiple foreign and local electoral organizations have argued the election day did not have any meaningful irregularities. For example, the MOE-Gt, a consortium of seven civil-society organizations with over 1,400 observers across the country, states that election day in Guatemala happened “within the standards.”
Despite acknowledging “isolated cases of electoral violence,” the MOE-Gt claims these had no impact on election day. The MOE-Gt reported 14 cases of electoral violence—including verbal attacks, physical violence, violent threats, and the destruction of material goods—across the country on June 25. In addition, it reported 19 cases of “pressuring voters into electing or not a specific candidate or party.”
Reasons behind the Blank, Void Votes
This is the first time in Guatemalan history that the void vote beat every other candidate in a presidential election. According to the Electoral Law, the void vote means the ballot does not have a clear sign showing a vote for a particular candidate, but it must be marked in some way. That includes drawings or words on the ballot but not an untouched ballot.
For the void vote to have an effect on the presidential election, it must obtain more than 50 percent of the votes. That is in contrast to other systems in Latin America, such as Ecuador’s, where the void vote need only surpass the candidates. If void votes reached 50 percent, Guatemala would have to repeat the presidential election. However, the law says this can only happen in the first round.
The blank vote, on the other hand, is when a ballot is completely empty. How many Guatemalans understood the distinction, although it had serious ramifications, is up for debate. Unlike void votes, blank votes do not trigger a new presidential election, although they presumably communicate the same message of dissatisfaction.
To confuse matters further, the TSE considers both void and blank votes valid. So-called invalid votes do not count at all and stem from problems with voter registration.
The local NGO president, who spoke with the Impunity Observer, argues Guatemalans used blank and void votes to express their discontent with politicians, the electoral process, and the lack of different options to vote for. This is consistent with a BBC report: “This is a clear sign of rejection to their options and the political system.” Another explanation reported by the BBC and in local media such as La Hora is that Carlos Pineda, Roberto Arzú, and Thelma Cabrera—three candidates banned by the TSE—campaigned for this type of vote. Their goal was for the void vote to surpass 50 percent to repeat the election.
Semilla’s Legal Challenges
The latest complaint that the Semilla party was fraudulently registering members dates back to February 2023. The Guatemalan MP is continuing to investigate the case through its Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI).
In an exclusive interview with the Impunity Observer, Reyes—Semilla’s attorney general and newly elected congresswoman—conceded the party could have included “some” other false signatures, in addition to the case the MP is investigating. However, she does not believe the number is around 5,000, as FECI’s head has previously stated.
When asked about the 12 deceased people enlisted by Semilla that the MP identified, Reyes claimed: “When our registration lists went to hospitals some people signed, but when the TSE analyzed these signatures some of them must have already died.” She described her explanation as “totally logical.” Reyes also admits that Semilla’s registration documents have been “poorly managed” during the 2023 electoral process.
She also stated the use of fraudulent signatures is a common practice across all political parties in Guatemala: “There is an overreaction regarding the Semilla’s case.… authorities have politicized [Semilla’s] investigation.”
Ronquillo also believes this case has been politicized because authorities should have suspended Semilla before the first round. For him, the timing of the investigation fuels doubts about the legitimacy of the investigation.
Ronquillo and Fratti agree the unanswered question that emerges from the Semilla case is why the TSE allowed Semilla to run when the MP had an ongoing investigation against the party. Meanwhile, Reyes contends “one fraudulent signature is not a cause for suspending the party,” although that could be the tip of the iceberg.
Article 92 of the Electoral Law establishes the justifications for the temporary suspension of political parties: (1) if a party has fewer members than those required (0.3 percent of registered voters), (2) if a party does not have the required national structure, (3) if a party has not paid its fines, and (4) if a party fails to provide detailed reports on spending and private donors. Reyes and the local NGO president contend that the MP is not allowed to suspend a party in the middle of an electoral process.
However, González, who is also legal adviser to the Impunity Observer, explains that “the prohibition on suspension during an election clearly refers to administrative issues under the Registrar’s authority.”
González adds that Article 251 of the Electoral Law establishes that the investigation of crimes is under the Penal Code. According to him, a judge’s order in a criminal case can suspend a party’s operations, so that it does not interfere with the criminal investigation.
Reactions to the Electoral Process
Ever since election day on June 25, the Guatemalan electoral process has sparked heated positive and negative reactions from local and foreign organizations focused on elections and civilian movements. While some local movements and organizations have complained about alleged fraud and demanded a vote recount from the TSE, some electoral observers have claimed the election day was positive overall and that there was no substantive fraud.
🇬🇹 Luis Almagro, secretario general de la OEA, ha confirmado que visitará Guatemala la próxima semana para reunirse con los candidatos Arévalo y Torres. La OEA ya había realizado una Misión de Observación Electoral en la que decretó que no hubo fraude en los comicios de junio. pic.twitter.com/42DS1CMrXa
— Descifrando la Guerra (@descifraguerra) July 26, 2023
Despite finding irregularities in specific districts—such as miscalculated ballot-box summary counts—Ronquillo believes there was no specific pattern to benefit any given party in terms of the presidential election: “If someone had information that revealed electoral fraud in the presidential election, it would already be public.”
González counters: “nine political parties appealed the Supreme Court’s ruling that the electoral authorities had complied with the CC’s recount order because of the public evidence,” but the CC did not analyze the evidence of noncompliance the appellants presented. For González, the electoral authority also committed a crime by certifying the election results before the CC had ruled.
Multiple civil-society organizations—including Immortal Guatemala, the Liga Pro-Patria, and the Guatemalan Foundation against Terrorism—released a statement on July 4 encouraging authorities to proceed with an investigation and thorough review of the June 25 votes. In addition, the statement demanded that the US State Department and the European Union stay away from Guatemala’s internal affairs.
For Gámez from the MOE-Gt, election day was organized and carried out properly despite leaving room for improvement in the organization. In terms of results, MOE-Gt officials publicly stated that the TSE results were similar to MOE-Gt’s parallel vote count. In addition, a MOE-Gt report claims that 99 percent of the polling stations had multiple party representatives when polling station members counted the votes.
On July 4, the MOE-Gt warned that a ballot review and recount of every vote could represent a threat, as “actors and organizations dissatisfied with the electoral results want to circumvent the authority of the polling station members (known as JRVs), which undermines the democratic and participatory spirit of the Guatemalan electoral process.”
On July 2, the Organization of American States (OAS) expressed its concern regarding the TSE review of the ballots. The OAS described the Guatemalan electoral process as “extremely judicialized.” The supranational coalition claims that challenges to anomalies and irregularities in the results should have been done by the parties’ representatives when the votes were being counted in the polling stations: “Despite the high number of party delegates, the total number of challenged votes was relatively low, meaning that the political organizations themselves found little to challenge on election day.”
The outcome of the MP investigation into Semilla’s fraudulent signatures remains to be seen. The experts the Impunity Observer interviewed agree that irregularities took place even before the electoral process began. Some of them believe the Electoral Law should be reformed to avoid these irregularities in the future. Nevertheless, in the June 25 elections the void vote beat every candidate—a historic outcome. However, even if one were to include the blank votes, the protest vote did not reach 50 percent. That would have forced a replay of the first round of the presidential election in the country.
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