What’s behind the post-election crisis in Guatemala?

Indigenous Guatemalan leader Carlos Barrientos Aragón reflects on the crisis that has unfolded in the country following the elections

July 12, 2023 by Carlos Barrientos Aragón
Electoral monitors revising the vote counting process. Photo: Paolina Albani

On Sunday, June 25, Guatemala held general elections with 22 candidates vying for the presidency of the country. As the counting of the votes proceeded, it became clear that a second round would take place since none of the candidates was polling near the required more than 50% threshold. Initial numbers indicated that Sandra Torres of the center-right National Unity of Hope (UNE) party and Bernardo Arévalo of the center Semilla Movement party would advance to the next round. 

However, on July 1, a week after the people went to the polls, several right-wing parties alleged that anomalies had occurred in the voting process and lodged a petition with the Constitutional Court to halt the certification of the first round voting, pause the release of official results and begin a recount.

A day later, the Court ordered the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to halt the release of the official results and called on it to begin a recount over the next 15 days. The move has been met with widespread rejection both within Guatemala and internationally and is considered yet another blow to the country’s fragile democracy and electoral process which had already been made vulnerable with the suspension of candidates even before people went to the polls.

In order to understand the ongoing political and electoral crisis, Carlos Barrientos of the Committee for Peasant Unity wrote the following reflection on the political situation.

1. One of the characteristics of the political party system in Guatemala is that, in the last 70 years, no party has been elected twice in the presidency and the parties are, above all, electoral franchises used by the oligarchy to guarantee their interests. Since 1954, the left could not participate electorally at the national level and it was not until 1995, in the context of the dialogue and negotiation process with the guerrilla, that, after 41 years, a leftist party was able to participate again in elections at the national level.

2. After the 2015 mobilizations that led to the resignation of the right-wing president and vice-president, due to accusations of corruption, the oligarchy together with corrupt right-wing politicians and former counter-insurgent military members, formed an alliance known in Guatemala as the “Pact of the Corrupt”. This alliance was formed in order to roll back the advances in regards to the fight against impunity and trials against those who violated human rights during the war in Guatemala. It also had the idea of regaining firm control of all state institutions, dismantling the laws and institutions that were created with the 1996 Peace Accords. The two previous governments of the extreme right gave way to a regressive process in relation to human rights and guarantees.

3. In the general elections (presidential, deputies and municipal mayors) held on June 25, 30 political parties participated, with 22 presidential candidates. Of these, 3 parties are of the left, one of the “center” and 26 of the right or extreme right.

4. Of the leftist parties, two of them participated in coalition (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca -URNG-, the former guerrilla and Winaq -a word in Mayan language K’iche’ meaning person-, a party with an important participation of indigenous professionals, founded, among others, by the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rigoberta Menchú). The other party Movimiento de Liberación de los Pueblos -MLP-, in the 2019 elections participated for the first time and came in 4th place, but this time, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, due to a spurious denunciation, did not allow the presidential binomial formed by an Indigenous leader and the former Human Rights Ombudsman, who opposed the Pact of Corrupts, to participate.

5. The Pact of the Corrupt, from the control of state institutions, particularly the judiciary, were able to prevent the candidacies that seemed uncomfortable to them for president, deputies and municipal mayors. They also sought to create conditions for them to position as presidential candidates, especially 4 electoral proposals: (a) the daughter of former dictator Rios Montt who was supported by the extreme right and the most reactionary sectors, (b) Sandra Torres, former first lady of a president who governed from 2008 to 2012 and who at that time presented themselves as social democrats, because of the implementation of social programs. However, it was this government that deepened the remilitarization and deployment of the army in areas where indigenous peoples were fighting for the defense of their territory and supported the expansion of monocultures. In 2011, when Torres was going to run for the first time as a candidate, she was involved in the decision to carry out violent evictions against 15 indigenous communities. (c) The former head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti -MINUSTAH- from 2006 to 2007 and from 2010 to 2011, with a diplomatic career in the United Nations, but known in Guatemala for having been involved in child trafficking during the war in our country, and (d) the candidate of the ruling party.

6. Despite the electoral polls, the outcome of the elections was seen as uncertain and there was not much credibility in the polls, given that the electoral body, known as the Supreme Electoral Tribunal -TSE- had made a series of questionable, partial and opaque decisions, preventing some candidacies and, at the same time, allowing others with candidates questioned by accusations of corruption, links with drug trafficking and others. In addition, although there was social demand for the left to participate united, in the end only the two parties mentioned above, Winaq and URNG, formed a coalition for the elections. There were also calls to vote null because, in the electoral law, if the null votes reach more than 50% of the votes cast, the elections are annulled and repeated only once. However, since 1985, no candidate has won in the first round and the mechanism established for repeating the elections makes it extremely difficult to reach more than 50% of the null votes and, if the elections are repeated, the political parties are not obliged to change the candidates they presented in the first opportunity.

7. The results were a surprise in several aspects: Abstentionism was 40%, similar to other occasions (in Guatemala, voting is not mandatory); the null vote which totaled 17.39% of the votes cast plus blank votes, reached 24.38% of the votes cast; the highest in any election, but far from the 50% plus one needed to repeat the elections. In first place, with 15.86% of the votes, was Sandra Torres of the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza -UNE- party, former first lady of former president Álvaro Colom who governed from 2008 to 2012. It is the third time that she leads the first place in the first electoral round, but she has lost in the second round, in two previous occasions, because she also has a high rejection of the electorate. She was accused of illicit electoral financing and was legally prosecuted, but due to a change in the law, she managed to have her case dismissed. The big surprise was the second place, with 11.78% of the votes for Bernardo Arévalo, of the Movimiento Semilla party (better known in Guatemala as Semilla), which in the last poll before the elections appeared in 8th place and with 2.5% of the votes. Bernardo Arévalo is a former diplomat and academic, currently a member of Congress and son of a former president who governed from 1945 to 1950 and is one of the two presidents of the only democratic period that the country has experienced, known in Guatemala as the “October Revolution”, a bourgeois-democratic revolution.

8. The Semilla party that participated for the first time in the 2019 elections, is a fundamentally urban party[1], conformed by middle class professionals, with an important participation of young people and with little participation of people coming from Indigenous Peoples. They do not feel comfortable defining themselves as leftist and prefer to define themselves as social democrats. Several of its members come from NGOs, academia or are consultants with diverse political and ideological positions from “center right” to “center left” (in fact, two of its previous deputies were expelled or resigned and in this June’s elections they ran as candidates of right-wing parties). Their campaign was modest and mostly on social media, where they emphasized their proposals, rather than a confrontational discourse. From the congress they have played a role of opposition to the current extreme right-wing president and have expressed their rejection of corruption; they have some positions that coincide with left-wing parties and with the rights of the majority of the population. For this reason, URNG and Winaq held meetings in search of forming a coalition, however, in the end it did not materialize and Semilla participated alone. From the vision of a Western bourgeois liberal democracy, they have publicly expressed that Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela are “dictatorships” but have not been equally critical of situations such as Haiti.

9. The other surprise was that, despite abundant resources and links to the governing party, the electoral results also expressed a rejection of the extreme right. The daughter of ex-dictator Ríos Montt obtained 6.56% of the votes. However, the vote for leftist parties also fell. The Winaq-URNG coalition only managed to place one deputy and the MLP party, which in the 2019 elections came in 4th place with 10.37% of the votes. In the elections of June 25, it did not manage to place even one deputy, nor did it achieve the 5% of the votes needed to remain in force after an election and, for that reason, they will disappear as a political party. Important to add that MLP has not engaged in electoral alliances or coalitions.

10. The right and extreme right had not foreseen that Bernardo Arévalo of the Semilla Movement would pass to the second round and when the period to challenge the electoral results was about to end, they went to the Constitutional Court, which is related to the Pact of Corrupts, and asked for a review of all the electoral results. This court, which is independent from the Supreme Court of Justice, without competing with it, resolved that there should be a review of the electoral results and, as long as this process was not concluded, no electoral results should be made official. Therefore, two weeks since the general elections were held, no results have been made official. Initially, 10 parties, including the party leading the results, had joined the demand for a review of the results, even requesting that all votes be recounted, a situation that is not established in the Guatemalan legislation, since the votes can only be reviewed and counted if the observers of the political parties (they are called party monitors), present challenges at any voting table. Over time, several parties have backtracked and few still maintain their position of counting all the votes. The strategy of several right-wing parties is that the electoral results be clarified in the courts, because they know that they have control there. However, this move has been met with widespread rejection. The other line of action of the right and extreme right has been to wage a smear campaign on social networks and the media against Bernardo Arévalo, especially using ultra-conservative arguments, in order to raise rejection and fear of what the victory of the Semilla presidency would mean for the country.

11. Finally, in the Guatemalan context, a “center” candidate is an advance in the regressive process that was being promoted and several people and organizations have expressed their support to the Semilla party, because it is perceived as the possibility and opportunity to modify the correlation of forces, although it is clear that it will be very difficult for Semilla to win and, if it wins the second round of the elections on August 20, it will have the congress and the judicial system totally against it because they are dominated by the Pact of the Corrupt.


[1] 53% of Guatemala’s population lives in urban centers and Semilla obtained almost half of its votes in the capital city and surrounding municipalities.

Carlos Barrientos Aragón is a leader and founder of the Committee for Peasant Unity, an Indigenous and peasant organization in Guatemala.