Guatemala’s highest court has suspended the results of the presidential elections as the country’s elite corruption networks mount a last-gasp attempt to cling to political power.
A review of the first round of voting was underway on July 4 after Guatemala’s Constitutional Court (Corte de Constitucionalidad) ruled in favor of nine political parties that appealed the first round results, citing potential irregularities.
Among the complainants were Vamos, the party of President Alejandro Giammattei; Valor, whose candidate, Zury Ríos, is the daughter of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt; and even the National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza - UNE), whose candidate, Sandra Torres, won first place in the first round.
These parties, and others, are part of a political alliance that surrounds the Giammattei government, working on a quid pro quo basis to ensure that power and influence remain in the hands of its allies.
None of the parties challenged the vote on election night.
Officials from Guatemala’s electoral body, the Supreme Electoral Court (Tribunal Supremo Electoral - TSE), could take up to five days to scrutinize the election’s first round. If electoral authorities deem irregularities could have affected the outcome of the vote, the first-round results could be overturned.
The suspension of election results, and the process around it, has caused international alarm.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a statement warning that “undermining the June 25 election would be a grave threat to democracy with far reaching implications.”
He backed the findings of numerous human rights organizations, including the Organization of American States (OAS), which reported that the election result was verified by national and international observers, including representatives of the political parties now challenging the vote.
There was “no reason to suspect that there were irregularities,” it said.
The OAS questioned the Constitutional Court’s role in the ruling, pointing out that Guatemalan law dictates that the Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia) rules on electoral cases. It also noted that review hearings must be held no later than five days after the vote.
“To feed a narrative of fraud without evidentiary support undermines the will of the people and the democratic institutionality,” it said.
The Constitutional Court’s decision arrived six days after Bernardo Arévalo stunned the country by picking up 11.8% of the vote. If the result stands, Arévalo, of center-left party Movimiento Semilla, will advance to a second-round run-off on August 20 against repeat presidential nominee Sandra Torres of the UNE party, who secured 15.8% of votes.
Arévalo beat out candidates from several parties now contesting the vote. Among them were Manuel Conde, of Vamos, and pre-election favorites, Zury Ríos (Valor) and Edmond Mulet (Cabal) -- all part of the country’s conservative political establishment.
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The suspension is another sign that elite corruption networks are leveraging their control of the court system to salvage an election in which they were resoundingly rejected by the electorate. If they succeed, it could deal a fatal blow to Guatemalan democracy.
Elite political blocs have strengthened their decades-long influence over Guatemala’s judicial and political branches during the Alejandro Giammattei presidency. The Giammattei administration has leveraged executive power to forge alliances with many of the parties now challenging the vote. These groups have positioned allies in the judicial sector, including on the Constitutional Court, which they hope will help them cling to political power.
Among these groups’ allies in the Constitutional Court are Leyla Lemus, Giammattei’s former private secretary, who was positioned as a permanent magistrate in 2019, and Roberto Molina Barreto, the former running mate of Zury Ríos. In 2021, the court ruled in favor of UNE’s Sandra Torres, deciding not to prosecute her for failing to register campaign contributions in 2015.
The Constitutional Court is now playing the leading role in undermining free elections in Guatemala, Edie Cux, legal director of the Guatemalan chapter of Transparency International, told InSight Crime.
“People are disgruntled. The right to elect is being questioned because the parties that are in collusion with the justice system don’t agree with the results,” he said.
The suspension is the latest in a series of dubious acts through which political blocs have sought to push their own criminal interests.
Prior to the elections, the courts disqualified a series of prominent candidates not aligned with the current administration. In May, the Constitutional Court ended the presidential run of Carlos Pineda Sosa, candidate for Citizen Prosperity (Prosperidad Ciudadana), as well as the rest of the party’s congressional and mayoral candidates. At the time, Pineda was leading the polls thanks to the massive groundswell of support he had generated with his outspoken rejection of ruling elites on social media.
The court also disqualified left-wing candidate Thelma Cabrera of the People’s Liberation Movement (Movimiento de la Liberación de los Pueblos - MLP) and volatile populist Roberto Arzú of the We Can (Podemos) party.
Electoral authorities have also faced accusations of corruption. Just three days before the elections, The New York Times published a report claiming Giammattei’s closest ally, Miguel Martínez, had attempted to bribe TSE magistrate Blanca Alfaro earlier this year. Alfaro later repudiated the story.
The situation in Guatemala is worrying, Ana María Méndez, director of Central America for the Washington Office on Latin America, told InSight Crime.
"What happens in a country where those actors in power cannot be held accountable by the international community or the citizens?" she said. "The Guatemala government has forgotten that sovereignty lies with the people."