Judges and prosecutors kicked out of the country. Independent media under attack. The best presidential candidates excluded from the race.
Warning signs of teetering democracy in Central America’s most populous country have emerged in the weeks leading up to Guatemala’s presidential election. But Sunday’s vote delivered a seismic jolt: one candidate whose campaign centered on eradicating corruption he won enough votes to force a runoff, dealing a major blow to the country’s political establishment.
Bernardo Arévalo, 64, a law professor with degrees in philosophy and anthropology, won 12 percent of the vote, with 98 percent of the votes counted in Sunday’s first round, the electoral authority said on Monday.
Sandra Torres, 67, a former first lady considered a standard bearer of the conservative establishment, came first with almost 16% of the vote.
Ms Torres and Mr Arévalo were the top two finishers and will compete in a runoff on August 20, despite claiming such a low percentage of the vote, because many Guatemalans left their ballots blank or canceled them.
In fact, the 24 percent of blank or canceled ballots far exceeded both candidates’ total votes. In addition, nearly 40% of voters did not take part in Sunday’s election.
Mr. Arévalo’s surprise and lack of voter participation show a high level of disenchantment with Guatemala’s political system, election analysts said. The government has come under scrutiny for increasingly authoritarian tactics that have targeted independent media and forced into exile dozens of judges and prosecutors focused on fighting corruption.
“We’re seeing how people express their struggle with a system, with a form of politics and government,” said Edie Cux, director of Citizen Action, a nonprofit that was part of an alliance of groups that has supervised the electoral process. “The population calls for reforms.”
Two establishment candidates considered top contenders: Edmond Mulet, a former diplomat; and Zury Ríos, daughter of a former dictator convicted of genocide, placed fifth and sixth.
Before Sunday’s vote, the nation’s electoral authority had disqualified from the race at least four candidates, including Carlos Pineda, a shifting favorite who had upset the political establishment, and Thelma Cabrera, an organizer seeking to unify indigenous voters long-marginalized Guatemalans.
The campaign was dominated by a handful of recurring themes, including the rise of violent crime and economic challenges in a country with some of the highest poverty and inequality rates in Latin America.
Ms Torres, who finished second in the last two presidential elections, has pledged to address the violence by emulating a strategy used in neighboring El Salvador to crack down on gangs.
However, it was Mr. Arévalo, often called Tío Bernie (Uncle Bernie) and the son of a president fondly remembered by many Guatemalans for creating the country’s social security system in the 1940s, who seemingly came out of nowhere to collect enough support to advance . The leadership of his party, called Semilla, or Seme, is composed largely of urban professionals, such as university professors, engineers and small business owners.
Loren Giordano, 33, a graphic designer and businesswoman in Guatemala City, said she voted for Arévalo because her party promotes measures she supports, including proposed legislation to increase spending on training cancer specialists, equipment and medicines. But the measure did not pass.
However, Ms Giordano has no faith that Mr Arévalo’s performance on Sunday will produce tangible improvements, even if he wins the presidency.
“I support Semilla and I think they want to make a change, but I don’t think the system will allow for that,” he said. “It seems utopian to think that we will have a candidate who is not involved in corruption and narcopolitics.”
Calling himself a progressive social democrat, Mr. Arévalo has drawn attention in his campaign on the inheritance of his father, who is also known for promoting freedom of speech and the press and for encouraging organized labor to play a political role in the country.
Mr. Arévalo was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, where his family lived while his father was in exile after his successor as president was overthrown in a coup in 1954. He grew up in parts of South America until was 15 when the family moved back to Guatemala.
Mr. Arévalo, despite his unexpected performance, will face a tough battle against Ms. Torres in the coming weeks. She has widespread name recognition and is building on her time as first lady, when she was the face of popular anti-poverty programs, including food assistance and cash transfers for poor families.
Torres can also count on the support of an institution that is unlikely to overturn the status quo, represented by President Alejandro Giammattei, who has been prevented by law from seeking re-election for a second term. Some other countries in the region, notably Mexico, have similar laws.
During Giammattei’s tenure, Guatemala went from being a regional model for its anti-corruption efforts to a country that, like many of its neighbors, undermined democratic norms.
But Mr. Arévalo has also deftly staged an insurrection campaign, mixing meme deployment with serious positioning on issues such as improving public health services. He has repeatedly said that he would recruit prosecutors and judges who were forced to leave Guatemala as advisers to help him fight corruption.
Some prominent establishment figures questioned Mr. Arévalo’s presentation, arguing that it had less to do with his charm than other factors.
“The polls are not credible,” wrote Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, president of the Foundation Against Terrorism, a far-right organization that has sought to discredit anti-corruption judges and prosecutors. Chirping. “The result is the responsibility of those who encouraged canceled votes. Arévalo has to thank them more than his constituents”.
However, in a country where the winning electoral formula often includes rich campaigns, occupying significant airtime on national TV channels and the blessings of economic elites, Mr. Arévalo had “none of these,” said Marielos Chang , a political scientist at the University of the Valley in Guatemala City.
“No one would have believed when the presidential campaign began three months ago that Bernardo Arévalo would have enough votes to advance,” he said.