Guatemalan presidential elections took place on Sunday. Hopes were low in the lead-up given a slate of far-right candidates backed by the Pacto de Corruptos (Covenant of the Corrupt), high-level bribery accusations, months of rival presidential candidates’ exclusions from the race, and a context of ever-increasing repression and criminalization. But in a shocking turn, voter discontent coalesced to push one unexpected candidate to the second round: Bernardo Arévalo.

Bernardo Arévalo celebrates first-round election results, photo credit: Luis Acosta (AFP)

Bernardo Arévalo and Sandra Torres Move to Second Round in Presidential Elections

Arévalo represents the opposition party, Movimiento Semilla. A current congressman, he is the son of Juan José Arévalo. Juan José Arévalo implemented democratic, land, education and women’s rights reforms during short-lived Guatemala’s democratic spring.

Bernardo Arévalo has vowed to bring back the 30+ judges and lawyers exiled from the country because of their work for justice. He also promised to demand the resignation of Consuelo Porras, the current Public Prosecutor, who has quashed corruption investigations, removed human rights prosecutors, and spearheaded efforts to criminalize those who question the Pacto de Corruptos. Jesús Tecú Osorio, founder of the Rabinal Legal Clinic believes “Arévalo will strengthen the justice system so it works for everyone, not just a few.”

In the second round of elections, Arévalo will face perennial candidate Sandra Torres (UNE). Former first lady Torres was a runner-up in the previous two elections. Already, the oligarchy, pro-military supporters and others determined to protect the status quo have begun to support her candidacy.

Many Choose to Nullify Vote

While Torres and Arévalo became the two candidates who moved to the second round of elections, the voto nulo (nullified vote) also played an important role. Many chose to leave their presidential ballot blank or to ruin it, rather than vote in a rigged election. Tecú Osorio shared, “the voto nulo indicates the people’s rejection of a corrupt system.”

The grassroots-supported party, Movement for the Peoples’ Liberation (MLP), who had been excluded from a presidential run on bogus charges, called on voters to cast a voto nulo in the presidential race. Election law requires a repeat election if 50 percent of votes cast are nullified. Though they did not reach that threshold, the voto nulo did win the popular vote, with more than 16 percent of presidential ballots nullified.

An election worker shows a nullified ballot, Photo credit: AFP

Guatemalans Respond to Call to “Vote with Memory”

The widespread use of the voto nulo and Arévalo’s unlikely rise show that the Guatemalan people responded to calls to “Vote with Memory.” On June 21, Guatemala’s Day Against Forced Disappearance, members of the Genocide Never Again coalition called on voters to reject candidates affiliated with the Pacto de Corruptos and genocide. They specifically named candidates including Zury Ríos, Santa Torres, Edmond Mulet and Manuel Condé Orellana.

Their calls met with some success. Mulet and Ríos, previously seen as competitive, did not make the second round. Mulet, a former diplomat, ran as a relative centrist. However, he had recently made anti-CICIG statements in a bid to protect his candidacy. Mulet also has a dark history of alleged involvement in illegal adoptions during the Internal Armed Conflict. 

Ríos, the daughter of genocidal former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt, emphasized violent, far-right policies. She refused to recognize Guatemala’s genocides and sought to reimpose the death penalty. She has surrounded herself with notorious figures like Álvaro Arzú and Ricardo Mendez Ruíz. As she fell in the polls in recent weeks, she tried to gain support by praising Bukele’s brutal, carceral methods. (Other candidates joined in on calls for Bukele-style hardline crackdown.) Survivors of her father’s genocidal reign called her candidacy, “illegal, unconstitutional, and immoral.”

Continued Challenges in Congressional and Local Elections, Second Round of Presidential Elections

Arévalo’s move to the second round demonstrated popular discontent with the status quo. However, powerful, pro-impunity actors will not go down without a fight.

Pacto de Corruptos actors have come out in favor of Sandra Torres’ campaign, despite their efforts to prevent her presidency in the past. Already, pro-impunity actors have begun a smear campaign against Arévalo, calling him a communist. Concerted efforts by powerful actors to prevent Arévalo’s presidency, together with Torres’ well-oiled campaign machinery, will make the second round an uphill battle for Semilla.

Likewise, status quo politicians from the current ruling party, Vamos, have gained a plurality in Congress. Vamos also strengthened its control at the municipal level. While Semilla has the third-highest number of congress members, other campesino and Indigenous-led parties like MLP, WINAQ and URNG-Maiz failed to gain a single seat. Those parties will therefore dissolve. Groundbreaking leaders like Sandra Morán and Vicenta Gerónimo will not serve in Congress. A right-leaning plurality in Congress will also make it hard to get progressive legislation passed.

Hope for New Possibilities

Challenges remain. Nonetheless the success of the voto nulo and the unexpected rise of Arévalo show that the Guatemalan public is tired of the far-right status quo of “poverty, dispossession, repression authoritarianism, murders, forced disappearance, genocide, corruption and impunity.

Members of the Genocide Never Again coalition call on the population to “vote with memory” and reject the candidacies of those with ties to the military and the Pact of the Corrupt, photo credit: CALDH

For further information on the recent elections, please read the following New York Times and Guardian pieces: