On Sunday, June 25, 2023, the citizens of Guatemala will cast their votes in a general election. At stake are the presidency (via a two-round runoff process) and vice presidency, all of Congress, and all municipal mayors and councils. As the election approaches, we spoke with Daniel Haering, a scholar and analyst of Guatemalan politics. Daniel is Senior Researcher at Diálogos, a think tank promoting evidence-based analysis of public policy in Guatemala. Our discussion with him on Guatemala’s current political environment and expectations for the upcoming election is below.
Before diving into the specifics of this month’s election, let’s set the stage. In 2019, then-President Jimmy Morales terminated the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an organization jointly created by the UN and Guatemala to investigate serious crimes, including corruption. How did the end of CICIG affect the presidential election held later that year, and how has it shaped politics in Guatemala over the last four years?
Daniel Haering: Guatemala’s political elites have traditionally been fragmented. The absence of institutionalized and strong parties, the almost-nonexistent relevance of ideologies in real political discussion, and the incorporation of new patronage elites after the 1996 Peace Accords have configured a system that seems to find no political consensus without corrupt exchanges.
CICIG, from 2015 to 2019, aggressively prosecuted most of these elites and introduced fear in all of them. With CICIG at its strongest moments (2016-2017), the kleptocratic system began to show signs of inoperability. During those years, without the corrupt negotiations and exchanges taking place “freely,” few laws were passed and there were inefficiencies in public spending execution. Without reforms to replace the role of corruption in decision-making (reforms that never truly happened), public management was paralyzed.
In response to this situation, the aforementioned elites united in an impunity pact (which managed to oust CICIG), where the different factions that make up the Guatemalan kleptocratic system agreed to end any prosecutions and investigations against each other. Today the pact is still strong and is the basis of Guatemala’s competitive authoritarianism; the system has discarded the candidacies that do not guarantee, for one reason or another, that impunity pact.
This clashes with CICIG’s second lasting impact because, in terms of public opinion, it stripped the system naked, making evident the way in which it works and undermining the popularity of traditional politicians. We see in this hasty election the consequences of the fact that the king (the kleptocratic system) is naked, and the king wants to prevent by all means necessary his replacement from power.
Incumbent President Alejandro Giammattei is not eligible to run for re-election. Currently, 23 candidates are running to replace him. Who are the major contenders, and what platforms do they represent?
DH: It is difficult to explain the political fragmentation of a system where there are 23 presidential candidacies (after an additional four have already been ruled out) and where no candidate is currently polling above 20%. The game to win the presidency is one of minorities, where candidates with resources and access to mainstream media, normally belonging to the traditional political class, have a clear advantage. These are the main five contenders:
Zury Ríos is the candidate of Valor Party. Daughter of the dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, she represents one of the most pro-system options. She is surrounded by ex-military, traditional caciques (political bosses) and lifelong politicians. She started with a clear advantage in name recognition but little by little has been deflating in the polls.
Sandra Torres from the UNE Party was the first lady of the President Álvaro Colom (2008-2012) and has built the most widespread and sophisticated political party in this race. Her voter base, achieved largely through social programs of her recently deceased ex-husband’s administration, makes her a strong candidate for runoff. However, her enormous rejection in urban regions likely prevents her (as it did in the 2015 and 2019 elections), from getting the presidency, making her the favorite villain for her rivals.
Edmond Mulet, candidate for CABAL party, is an old politician from the 1980s-90s who has made a very successful career at the UN in the last 25 years. He is the one with the most moderate political discourse and is surrounded by the most experienced technicians. However, he has built his party with traditional politicians, which prevents him from fully projecting himself as a candidate for reform. Despite this, after Carlos Pineda’s outsider candidacy was blocked in the courts, he leads most of the polls and is a firm candidate to advance ton the runoff.
Manuel Conde is the representative of the party in power, Vamos. The unpopularity of Alejandro Giammattei weighs on him, as does his lack of charisma, but his resources to feed clientele networks seem to be inexhaustible.
Manuel Villacorta of VOS Party is a relatively well-known left-wing politician who appears as 5th place in most polls. He is the most clearly anti-system option by his origins, discourse, and actions, even though his political party has a good deal of traditional actors.
The levels of support of the other candidacies are too low for them to be this year’s surprise.
Under Giammattei, Guatemala’s judicial system has been used to stifle political opposition, including former investigators from CICIG and the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI), prominent journalists such as José Rubén Zamora, and prospective presidential candidates such as Thelma Cabrera and Carlos Pineda. What is the relationship between the major contenders in this year’s election and those running the judicial system?
DH: Guatemala’s judicial system is subservient to political powers. Recruitment is only partially meritocratic and promotion within institutions is largely subject to political fluctuations. The Appeals Courts are chosen by Congress as well as the Supreme Court of Justice. The Constitutional Court, the ultimate power of the justice system, is elected unilaterally by a series of corporate powers (President, Congress, Bar Association, the National State University and the Supreme Court of Justice). Appointees’ terms are short, and therefore whoever aspires does so through political negotiations. CIGIG and FECI (Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity) revealed in two cases called Parallel Commissions the inner workings of those deals.
In short, the absence of meritocracy, the short periods of tenure, and the fact that the appointment of most important positions are completed by political institutions means that the justice system is subject to deputies and the presidency. If we see an appeals chamber make a decision as controversial as eliminating a contender who leads the polls one month before the elections, like in the case of Carlos Pineda, rest assured that it is because there is political support behind it.
What are the main issues motivating Guatemalan citizens as they consider their votes? Are any of the candidates’ platforms particularly responsive to citizens’ wants and needs?
DH: The short answer is change. Boredom is pervasive and consistent across all possible measures. More than 85% of citizens consider that the country is heading in the wrong direction and a similar percentage shows pessimism towards the future and distrust towards institutions.
Apart from government clientele networks, everyone, even the traditional options, try to separate themselves from the current government and present themselves as options for change, order, and fight against corruption.
Perceptions of what change is or isn’t, are relative and subjective. What can be affirmed is that the options perceived as more anti-establishment with chance to succeed were arbitrarily eliminated from the race.
What are the implications of this election for the future of Guatemala’s political establishment?
DH: The political system is increasingly delegitimized and confidence in democracy is diminishing. Public policies don’t give satisfactory results, the economy has a sustainable growth but is dependent on the tragedy of massive exodus to the United States and the billions of dollars that migrants send back each year, and the unpopularity of politicians is staggering.
Without political change and the approval of at least certain reforms, the crisis will deepen. Although they seem not to be aware of it, the political class is making the country defenseless against future populist and authoritarian movements well known in the region, as the case of outsider Carlos Pineda proves. You can’t govern without legitimacy, and they don’t seem to understand it. Without intending to do so, in this election they risk their own survival as establishment elites.