Tuesday, June 25

Guatemala’s main party is suspended, throwing the election into turmoil

Guatemala’s electoral authority on Thursday rejected attempts by a senior prosecutor to suspend the party of an emerging anti-corruption candidate, which would have upended the presidential election and dealt a major blow to the country’s already fraying democracy.

The agency’s decision allows Bernardo Arévalo – the lawyer whose surprisingly strong performance in June’s first round of voting shook Guatemala’s political class – to compete against Sandra Torres, a former first lady, in the August 20 runoff.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal of Guatemala, through its citizen registry office, said it could not “obey” a criminal court order to suspend Arévalo’s party, arguing that according to Guatemalan law, political parties cannot be suspended during an electoral process.

“We are, I believe, facing a historic moment that is marking the entire nation,” said Ramiro Muñoz, director of the city registry office, at a press conference. “We are doing the right thing.”

Rafael Curruchiche, the prosecutor who initiated the case against Mr. Arévalo’s party, was himself placed by the United States on a list of corrupt Central American officials for obstructing corruption investigations.

Mr. Arévalo, in a video message on Thursday, said he would proceed with his candidacy.

“All of Guatemala is vigilant,” he said. “Those of us who defend democracy are the majority, and we are clear in our rejection of that corrupt minority who are desperate to manipulate public institutions and violate the constitutional order.”

This week’s developments have placed even greater emphasis on Guatemala’s fragile democracy. Several senior presidential candidates seen as a threat to the political and economic establishment had already been barred, press freedom was under attack, and dozens of prosecutors and judges focused on corruption were forced into exile.

“They are stealing the election in broad daylight, using just one of the institutions that is supposed to protect us,” Gustavo Marroquín, history professor and columnist, She said on Twitter of the prosecutor’s move.

Curruchiche’s decision fueled confusion and anger in Guatemala’s capital, Guatemala City, where hundreds gathered in protest Wednesday shortly after the announcement. Lui took the action as Guatemala’s electoral authority was preparing to officially reject efforts to delay the runoff, allowing the vote to proceed as scheduled. More protests are planned for the coming days.

When asked by reporters about the prosecutor’s move against Arévalo’s party, Irma Elizabeth Palencia, leader of the electoral authority, said: “It’s definitely something that worries us.”

Brian Nichols, the top State Department official for the Western Hemisphere, She said on Twitter that the US government was “deeply concerned” about what it described as “threats to Guatemala’s electoral democracy” by Curruchiche.

“Institutions must respect the will of voters,” Nichols added.

Arévalo’s party, called Semilla, or Seme, filed a motion around midnight in Guatemala’s highest constitutional court, challenging the ruling. On Thursday afternoon, the court accepted the appeal, protecting Semilla’s legal personality and allowing it to go to the August ballot.

Mr Curruchiche, who heads the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity, said the case against Semilla involved claims that she used more than 5,000 fraudulent signatures to qualify as a political party.

After his office looked into the matter, a criminal judge ordered the suspension of the party’s registration, which would have effectively barred it, and Mr. Arévalo, from participating in the ballot.

The fears, however, remain. On Thursday morning, Mr. Curruchiche’s office searched and seized evidence at the Citizens’ Registry, which contained documents filed by Semilla.

Legal experts have contested the move by Curruchiche, an ally of the outgoing president, Alejandro Giammattei. An independent watchdog group, Mirador Electoral, warned in a statement that the suspension was an attempt “to consummate an electoral coup equivalent to a coup”.

Edgar Ortiz Romero, a constitutional law expert, said the move was “absolutely illegal” as only the electoral tribunal, not a criminal judge, can suspend a party’s registration under Guatemala’s electoral laws.

“This places us in the sad group of countries with advanced authoritarian characteristics where the legal system is used to attack opponents,” said Ortiz Romero.

The legal maneuvering to substantially disqualify Mr. Arévalo has provoked widespread anger, calls for a national shutdown, and a growing chorus calling for the preservation of democratic norms, even among some conservatives.

Ms. Torres, Semilla’s opponent, who is linked to Guatemala’s conservative establishment, criticized the move to leave Mr. Arévalo out of the running and said she would suspend her campaign in protest.

The recent actions are “so extremely confusing, perplexing and damaging to the transparency of Guatemalan democracy,” he said on Twitter, calling on the country’s electoral authority to respect the August runoff.

Other powerful people and institutions, including business and countrymen Chamber of Commerceshe has also spoken out against attempts to obstruct the presidential runoff.

Their discontent suggests that “there is some sort of deep elite split going on right now,” said Will Freeman, a Latin American studies fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “This is not happening smoothly.”