An outsider candidate campaigning on an anti-corruption platform secured a landslide victory in Guatemala’s presidential election on Sunday, setting up a possible showdown between the president-elect and corrupt, political elites still clinging to power.
Centrist anti-corruption campaigner Bernardo Arévalo secured 58% of votes in the August 20 presidential run-off, comfortably defeating establishment candidate Sandra Torres (37%), who suffered her third consecutive defeat in the second round of elections.
It comes just two months after Arévalo and his center-left party, the so-called Seed Movement (Movimiento Semilla), defied all expectations to reach the second round amid a field stacked with conservative parties, many linked to corruption, which have dominated politics for decades.
The result marks a historic rebuke of the deeply entrenched corruption that has long plagued the Central American nation and that has intensified during the administration of outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei.
Arévalo has pledged to root out corruption and shepherd in a “democratic spring,” following in the footsteps of his father, Juan José Arévalo -- who, in 1944, became Guatemala’s first democratically-elected president.
Arévalo’s victory sparked rare scenes of jubilation in the capital, Guatemala City, as Semilla supporters gathered outside the Las Américas hotel, where the president-elect addressed a rapturous crowd.
“Thank you for not losing hope. Thank you for not giving up against corruption,” Arévalo said from a terrace overlooking hundreds of elated supporters waving Guatemala flags, blowing vuvuzelas, and singing the national anthem.
“This is hope that we haven’t had in many years. It’s hope for all of Guatemala,” said a student celebrating alongside thousands of Semilla supporters gathered at the capital’s Obelisco Square, who gave her name as Jeniffer.
Arévalo’s rise to president-elect marks a potentially seismic shift in power away from the corrupt political establishment. It comes despite repeated attempts to derail the elections spearheaded by criminal networks that have steadily infiltrated state institutions to foster a climate of corruption, organized crime, and impunity.
Following the election’s first round in June, prosecutors aligned with these networks launched a criminal investigation into Semilla and announced the party’s suspension. In July, the Attorney General’s Office raided Semilla headquarters after accusing the party of falsifying signatures when registering with electoral authorities.
Prosecutors have also hounded electoral authorities after they defied prosecutors' orders to suspend Arévalo’s party. A top electoral magistrate resigned as voters headed to polls for the run-off, citing threats received during the electoral period.
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The case against Semilla could complicate the party’s path to power between now and January 14, 2024, when Arévalo is set to take office. Just days before the second round, Guatemala’s top prosecutor warned of possible arrests following the elections.
Arévalo dismissed the case as “political persecution” in a press conference held shortly after his victory was confirmed.
“What they’re doing is completely illegal,” Semilla Congressman Román Castellanos told InSight Crime as crowds celebrated outside the Las Américas hotel. “Their actions are spurious and malicious.”
Fears of further interference were slightly soothed after President Giammattei congratulated Arévalo on his victory and called for an orderly transition of power. Giammattei’s government has been at the center of efforts to consolidate power across state institutions and remove counterbalances to impunity.
But, as of August 21, runner-up Torres was yet to concede the elections. Instead, her party, the National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza -- UNE), released a statement citing irregularities with electoral authorities.
Torres also repeatedly alluded to voter fraud in the final stages of the campaign, part of a broader smear campaign against Semilla.
An UNE spokesperson did not respond to InSight Crime’s request for comment.
The Attorney General’s Office has yet to announce further actions against Semilla, but party officials are gearing up for a fight.
“We know they are going to continue with their illegal strategy to cancel Semilla as a political movement,” said Kevin Sánchez, a party coordinator in Guatemala City.
“But we know we have the support of the Guatemalan people,” Sánchez added. “We know there’s lots of work to do, but we’re very confident of making it to January 14.”