Guatemalan centre-left presidential candidate Bernardo Arévalo has warned the country risks “an authoritarian drift” if his rival Sandra Torres takes office.
Arévalo made the stark warning in an exclusive interview with openDemocracy. Minutes before its publication on Friday, news broke that the headquarters of his party, Semilla, were being raided as part of an investigation started last year, according to the Prosecutor’s Office, into whether it falsified signatures in its election registration.
On 25 June, Arévalo surprised many by winning 11% of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections, setting the stage for an electrifying run-off against Torres (who won 15.8%) of the social-Christian National Unity of Hope party (UNE) next month.
As the results of the first round were announced, a coalition of political parties made allegations of voter fraud and demanded a recount. Semilla had not polled highly in the run-up to the vote, and coalition members appeared resentful of the small party’s success.
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The recount confirmed his place in the second round, but the Public Prosecutor's Office, headed by Consuelo Porras – who has been accused by the US State Department of involvement in “significant corruption” – launched an investigation into Semilla’s registration process.
Judge Freddy Orellana called for Semilla’s suspension, despite laws that prevent taking action against a political party in the middle of an election. The Constitutional Court granted an appeal to protect the party, and the Electoral Tribunal rejected Orellana’s request.
Yet Orellana issued warrants for the arrests of two Semilla members allegedly involved in the falsification and workers of the Electoral Tribunal. The electoral authority has asked the Constitutional Court for an appeal requiring the Public Prosecutor's Office and the courts to “refrain from actions that limit the progress of the electoral process”.
In his interview with openDemocracy, Arévalo acknowledged a problem with a signature during Semilla’s registration – a fairly common issue in Guatemalan politics that has not previously led to the suspension of a party.
He said the party flagged the issue in March, filing a complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office and requesting an investigation into the individual responsible for the signature. But it did not receive a response from the authority until after its success in the first round.
Arévalo described the allegations as “desperate measures by a group that did not see us coming”.
The former diplomat and activist, who is the son of Juan José Arévalo Bermejo, Guatemala’s president from 1945 to 1951, vowed to crack down on corruption in the country – which is among the most corrupt in Latin America, according to Transparency International – and seize “a new-found hope that we can indeed move towards a dignified future for all”.
His opponent, meanwhile, is known for her ties to the status quo. Torres, 67, was first lady between 2008 and 2011, when her ex-husband Álvaro Colom was president and UNE leader. Their divorce was largely seen as a means to circumvent the electoral law that prevents an incumbent president’s relatives from running for office.
openDemocracy spoke to Arévalo about his plans and hopes for Guatemala and his chances of winning the run-off and becoming president.
openDemocracy: What will happen in Guatemala if you lose the election and Sandra Torres wins?
Bernardo Arévalo: The country would enter an authoritarian drift because we have seen how the corruption apparatus that for a long time was content to steal is now willing to persecute to continue stealing. And this means using the justice system, civil intelligence or any other method to eliminate people who are obstacles to their plans.
oD: Where has the accusation of forged signatures come from? What do you think of the Prosecutor’s Office?
BA: The Prosecutor’s Office has been accused of managing this corrupt pact within the country and obtained a warrant through a court that has lent itself precisely to this type of harassment in the past. There was indeed a forged signature; as soon as we found out about it, we filed a complaint with the Prosecutor's Office requesting an investigation. That was in March. We heard nothing. Then – surprise! – we found out about [the accusation of forgery], which came after the failed attempt to get [Manuel Conde, the candidate for the conservative Vamos party] to win [a place in the run-off] via a recount.
oD: How are you responding?
BA: We have reported the judge [Orellana] for ‘prevarication’ – the crime of ruling intentionally and consciously against the law. Electoral law says you cannot suspend a political party from the moment the electoral process begins until it ends. These are desperate measures by a group that, because we did not appear likely to win in the opinion polls, did not see us coming.
oD: How did you get you through to the second round?
BA: We ran a small campaign, partly out of choice and partly out of necessity. We believe it is essential to gain trust, speak to people directly and amplify the spaces for dialogue. We walked through neighbourhoods, held open meetings in squares, visited markets, and used social media. We had TikTok and Facebook live streams, where we connected with many young people.
Hope has been restored in the possibility of breaking the curse that this country cannot get rid of corrupt politicians. [Young voters] have done it. They have bet on us. It's part of a protest vote.
oD: You came second to Torres in a highly fragmented vote. Is it possible to make up that difference in the run-off?
BA: The gap is not huge. The run-off will not be about overcoming those who voted for her, but convincing people who cast invalid votes that it is possible to fight against the system. We are working on ways to connect with them.
oD: Semilla is an urban party. It was the urban youth who came out to vote for you. How do you plan to attract the Indigenous vote in the second round?
BA: That is the biggest challenge. We must speak with them. We will not develop a clientelist machine [in which political parties offer poorer communities money or supplies in exchange for votes] because there is no place for that – it is part of the political problem for us. We are going to focus on people who are getting rid of that clientelist straitjacket, and with their support, we are going to win the election.
oD: How do you plan to start talks with Indigenous voters?
BA: Our strategy for development is not about growing and developing the economy at the top and waiting for a ‘trickle down’ effect that we know will never come, but about directing public investment towards areas of neglect or poverty and fostering development from the bottom.
oD: The left is fragmented. Do you intend to establish a progressive coalition with these other groups? Are talks under way?
BA: We are opening the door to all the political forces, on the left and the right, that are clear that this is a historic opportunity to displace criminal and corrupt political groups and, from there, to work together and unite forces. Our emphasis is not to seek alliances with political parties, because the vote has been an anti-establishment vote. Instead, we will seek alliances with social movements, which we are already working on.
oD: Semilla presents itself as a progressive option, and there are feminist figures within the party. What is your position on abortion and LGBTQ rights?
BA: We have been very clear in totally rejecting all forms of discrimination based on sexual orientation. We are going to fight hate speech. We have stated clearly that the current legal framework on abortion, which defends women from possible criminalisation in cases of miscarriages, must be maintained. In Guatemala, therapeutic abortion [when the pregnant woman’s life is in danger] is allowed. We believe that a massive effort must be made in terms of sexual education to avoid unwanted pregnancies, which is the source of the problem.
oD: Of the 23 presidential tickets in the first round, yours and Karin Herrera’s (Arévalo’s vice-presidential candidate) was among the few that did not sign the so-called ‘Life and Family’ declaration, an initiative of the ultra-conservative group Family Matters (AFI) to defend traditional family and oppose abortion rights and equal marriage. Why?
BA: We explained to the AFI leadership that we have a broader vision of defending the family than simply the rights being put forward there. Protecting the family implies protecting welfare, employment, healthcare access and education. From that point of view, the family protection we believe in is not being put forward in the declaration.
oD: Many rumours are circulating about your supposed affinities with the governments of Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela. How do you respond, and what would your government’s foreign policy be?
BA: We are the only party in Congress that called for a resolution condemning the breakdown of the electoral process in Nicaragua when the authoritarian drift became evident. But almost nobody supported us. We have been very clear that there is no democracy without social justice, but there is no social justice without democracy. For us, governments that flout elections, and violate civil liberties and political freedoms, are not democratic governments.
oD: If you win the presidency, you will have to negotiate with Congress, where the opposition has a majority, to pass laws. How do you imagine that scenario? How far would you be willing to go in such negotiations?
BA: We will build alliances based on shared objectives, common positions. And what is clear to us is that the corruption mechanisms around the state budget for public works will disappear because we will not allow them [to function]. The budget will not be subject to negotiations. It will be administered according to objective, professional and functional criteria. And then we will see that these corrupt alliances will begin to crumble because the oil that lubricates the gears will simply disappear.
oD: What would your government's plan be to attack corruption?
BA: We are clear that this is a systemic problem which needs a comprehensive approach and a medium- and long-term horizon. Last year we took part in an anti-corruption roundtable in Congress, where a strategic approach was identified that includes the judiciary, institutional design and legislation, public education for prevention and cultural change.
oD: Why is corruption so significant, above other issues such as poverty?
BA: It is not above. We have significant issues and urgent issues. The most significant issues are those of development. This country cannot sustain itself, with six out of every ten Guatemalans living below the poverty line, half of the children under five years of age suffering from some degree of malnutrition, and a medical system that can only attend to a third of the population. The most critical thing is dealing with development debts, but the most urgent thing is dealing with corruption because if we don't get corruption out of the way, we won't recover the democratic institutions. This country needs to provide welfare for its population, and what prevents us from making the institutions work is the corruption suffocating them.
oD: Some activists, justice advocates and journalists have had to leave the country in recent years. What guarantees and protection would these people have if they wanted to return to the country?
BA: In Guatemala, there is a separation of powers, and we cannot intervene in the judiciary. What will change dramatically is the existence of an executive that persecutes people who trouble it. The pressure will end, and there will no longer be an incentive to continue persecuting people against whom cases have been opened. What we are going to do is to allow people to resolve their cases within the framework of the separation of powers.
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