Voters in Guatemala, Central America’s most populous nation, cast their votes on Sunday in presidential elections that are drawing attention to what many observers have called the erosion of the rule of law.
In a field of more than 20 candidates, no one would need to win a majority to win in the first round of voting, with observers predicting an August 20 runoff between the top two finishers.
The electoral authority excluded several high-ranking candidates who were seen as a threat to the political and economic establishment. That move was seen as another assault on Guatemala’s frayed democracy. Under an increasingly authoritarian government, the judiciary has forced into exile dozens of prosecutors and judges focused on fighting corruption.
Freedom of the press has also been attacked. This month, the founder of a major newspaper who has exposed many corruption cases was sentenced to six years in prison after being convicted of money laundering.
The race had narrowed in recent weeks to three main candidates who respected the conservative status quo: Sandra Torres, 67, a former first lady previously arrested on charges of campaign finance violations; Zury Ríos, 55, daughter of a dictator convicted of genocide against indigenous Guatemalans; and Edmond Mulet, 72, a former diplomat under scrutiny for his work arranging adoptions of Guatemalan children by Canadian families.
Officials said the vote was mostly calm, but there were reports of violence in the municipality of San José del Golfo, about 17 miles from Guatemala City. The constituency council said polling station workers on a bus bound for training on Saturday were stopped by a group as they reached the municipality.
The workers were then forcibly taken from the bus, doused in petrol and threatened with being set on fire before the police intervened. The council said workers quit after the attack and that San José del Golfo centers did not have enough volunteers to receive votes.
On Sunday, police fired tear gas at a crowd in San José del Golfo after reports that people from other municipalities had been bussed to vote there. By noon, voting in San José del Golfo had been suspended. More than 100 miles to the west, in San Martín Zapotitlán, police have arrested 11 people in connection with irregularities, including burning of ballots, authorities said.
Other irregularities reported by election observers included isolated cases of buying votes for food and money in parts of the country. The authorities received 208 complaints, mostly in relation to threats and allegations of coercion, and at least 31 people were arrested in different parts of Guatemala on charges of violating electoral laws.
In the polling station in the basement of Guatemala City’s central park, Silvia Martínez, 68, said she was motivated by the hope that “Guatemala will improve and end corruption”.
While she declined to say which candidate she supported, Ms Martínez said she hoped the winner would pay attention to the needs of migrants as the number of Guatemalans leaving the country increased. The remittances they send home support many families.
“The Foreign Ministry has abandoned them despite the fact that they are the source of much economic revenue for Guatemala,” said Ms. Martínez.
Runoffs have become common in Guatemala since 1996 peace deals ended a 36-year civil war marked by brutal counterinsurgency tactics. The current president of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, cannot stand for re-election.
But even though a sharp rise in violent crime and an extremely high cost of living have made Mr. Giammattei, a conservative, deeply unpopular, the main candidates in the race are also generally conservative, suggesting continuity with the country’s political establishment.
Voting is not compulsory in Guatemala and the abstention rate, which was nearly 40% in the last presidential election in 2019, will be watched closely as an indicator of voter discontent.
A major theme throughout the campaign season has been a call to emulate El Salvador’s crackdown on gangs and violent crime. The number of murders in Guatemala — fueled in part by powerful gangs — rose almost 6% in 2022 compared to the previous year, and there has also been a sharp increase in the number of murder victims who have shown signs of torture. Many Guatemalans cite fears of extortion and crime as reasons for emigrating.
All three major candidates have embraced proposals to implement El Salvador-inspired policies in Guatemala. Ms. Ríos, for example, equated gangs in Guatemala with the guerrilla activity her father has waged war against, vowing to strengthen security policies. Similarly, Mr. Mulet has promised to build a maximum security prison and raise police salaries.
Each of the candidates also made proposals to alleviate the economic difficulties in Guatemala, where about 59% of the population lives below the poverty line. The lack of economic opportunities in Guatemala is one of the main factors driving people to emigrate. Guatemalans are among the fastest growing migrant groups in the United States; the number of Guatemalans in the United States increased by about 33% from 2010 to 2021.
Ms Torres has promised to increase cash transfers and food assistance to poor families. She was married to Álvaro Colom, who was president of Guatemala from 2008 to 2012 and who died this year at the age of 71. They divorced in 2011, when Ms. Torres first tried to run for president and tried to get around a law that barred a president’s relatives from running.
She was still barred from running that year, but was the runner-up in the two most recent presidential elections. After the 2019 election, she was accused of campaign finance violations and she spent time under house arrest.
Ms. Torres prevailed in that case late last year when a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to proceed to trial, allowing her to run again. During the electoral campaign, you were able to obtain the support of your party, the National Unity of Hope, which is well known in Guatemala. Going into the vote, she appeared to be the leading candidate with support levels hovering around 20%.
Guatemala has earned plaudits over the past decade for efforts to curb graft. But that initiative, spearheaded by a group of UN-backed international investigators, has been systematically dismantled in recent years as entrenched political and business interests began hounding the country’s anti-corruption judges and prosecutors.
Ms Ríos, another familiar figure in Guatemalan politics, ran a campaign with deep ties to the establishment. She is the daughter of Efraín Ríos Montt, a dictator in the early 80s convicted of genocide in 2013 for attempting to exterminate the Ixil, a Mayan Indian community.
Ms. Rios has repeatedly claimed that no genocide has ever occurred and that his ultra-conservative party is led by figures connected to his father.
However, as Ms. Ríos promotes her conservative credentials, she has forged alliances in Congress in an effort to win legislative passage for bills aimed at improving the conditions of women and LGTBQ people.
The other main candidate, Mr. Mulet, a lawyer and former diplomat who served as Guatemala’s ambassador to the United States and the European Union has warned that the country is sliding towards an “authoritarian model” of government.
While Mr. Mulet has drawn attention to the pullback of anti-corruption initiatives, he is best known for his work as a lawyer in the 1980s, when he was arrested in connection with arranging adoptions of Guatemalan children by Canadian families.
Although Mr. Mulet was freed and denied any wrongdoing, he had to spend time campaigning to explain his involvement in the case.
Mr. Mulet represents a newly formed party with no seats in Congress but which gave way to a competitive coalition of nationally and local candidates in Sunday’s election.