Guatemala, Central America’s largest nation, is due to vote on Sunday in presidential elections that are examining the erosion of the rule of law in a country that has become a major source of migration to the United States.
Guatemala’s nascent democracy – which emerged after the end of a civil war nearly four decades ago that left hundreds of thousands dead or missing, one of the bloodiest in recent Latin American history – has frayed in recent years under an increasingly authoritarian government .
The judiciary was armed and forced into exile dozens of prosecutors and judges focused on fighting corruption. Freedom of the press has also come under attack and this month the editor of a major newspaper who has exposed many incidents of corruption was sentenced to six years in prison after being convicted of financial crimes.
The electoral authority in Guatemala, a country of 18 million, has raised concerns over attacks on democratic norms after excluding several high-level presidential candidates who were seen as a threat to the political and economic establishment.
Tensions over teetering Guatemalan democracy have left some voters disappointed and wondering if they shouldn’t even bother voting.
“I don’t think there should even be elections,” said Óscar Guillén, 70, explaining that he intended to leave his ballot blank to express his disenchantment.
Officials said the vote was mostly calm, but there were reports of violence in the municipality of San José del Golfo, about 17 miles from Guatemala City. According to the electoral council, polling station workers were on a bus en route to training on Saturday when they were stopped by a group of people on their way to the municipality.
The workers were then forcibly taken from the bus, doused in petrol and threatened with being set on fire before the police intervened. The electoral board said workers quit after the attack and that San José del Golfo centers did not have enough volunteers to receive votes.
On Sunday, police fired tear gas at a crowd in San José del Golfo after reports that people from other municipalities were being bussed to vote there. At noon, voting in San José del Golfo was suspended. More than 100 miles to the west, in San Martín Zapotitlán, police arrested 11 people in connection with irregularities, including burning ballots, authorities said.
Voters choose from a crowded field of more than 20 candidates, none of whom are expected to win a majority on Sunday, which would force an August 20 runoff between the top two finishers.
Runoffs have become commonplace in Guatemala since the 1996 peace accords ended an internal conflict that lasted 36 years and was marked by brutal counterinsurgency tactics that led to genocide against the indigenous people.
The current president of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, cannot be re-elected by law. But even though a sharp rise in violent crime and an extremely high cost of living have made Mr. Giammattei, a conservative, deeply unpopular, the main candidates in the race are also generally conservative, suggesting continuity with the country’s political establishment.
Voting is not compulsory in Guatemala and the abstention rate, which was nearly 40% in the last presidential election in 2019, will be watched closely as an indicator of voter discontent.
Here’s what you need to know about Sunday’s vote.
Of the three main candidates, none should secure anything close to the majority needed to win outright on Sunday. In several polls, former first lady Sandra Torres appeared to be the top candidate, but with support levels hovering around 20%. (Giammattei’s party presidential candidate is voting in low singles.)
Ms Torres, 67, was married to Álvaro Colom, who was president of Guatemala from 2008 to 2012 and who died this year at the age of 71. They divorced in 2011, when Ms. Torres first tried to run for president and tried to get around a law that bars relatives of a president from running.
She was still barred from running that year, but was the runner-up in the two most recent presidential elections. After the 2019 election, she was accused of campaign finance violations and she spent time under house arrest.
Ms. Torres prevailed in that case late last year when a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to proceed to trial, allowing her to run again. During the election campaign, you were able to gain the support of your party, the National Unity of Hope, which is well established and widely known in Guatemala.
Ms Torres, like her two main rivals, has expressed admiration for the government’s crackdown on gangs in neighboring El Salvador, which has helped quell the violence, but has also raised concerns about human rights abuses.
She also promised to increase cash transfers and food assistance to poor families, building on her time as first lady when she was the face of these kinds of grassroots initiatives.
Another major challenger, Zury Ríos, 55, is also a familiar figure in Guatemalan politics. She is the daughter of Efraín Ríos Montt, an early 1980s dictator convicted of genocide in 2013 for attempting to exterminate the Ixil, a Mayan people.
While the evidence against her father was meticulously documented and detailed during her trial, Ms. Ríos was claimed repeatedly that no genocide ever took place. His ultra-conservative party is led by figures connected to his father.
However, while Ms. Ríos promotes her conservative credentials and evangelical Christian beliefs, she has a more nuanced track record as a former congresswoman as she forged alliances in an effort to win legislative approval for bills aimed at improving conditions for women. and LGTBQ people.
Another main contender for the presidency is Edmond Mulet, 72, a lawyer and former senior diplomat who served as Guatemala’s ambassador to the United States and the European Union, as well as head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.
While Mr. Mulet highlighted his diplomatic experience, he is also known for his work as a lawyer in the 1980s, when he was arrested in connection with his work arranging adoptions of Guatemalan children by Canadian families.
Although he was quickly freed and Mr. Mulet denied any wrongdoing, he still spent time during the election campaign having to explain his involvement in the episode.
In his campaign, Mr Mulet represents a newly formed party with no seats in Congress, but which forged a competitive coalition of nationally and local candidates in Sunday’s election. His proposals include a universal pension, increased police salaries and the construction of a new maximum security prison.
What are the main problems?
corruption: Guatemala has earned plaudits over the past decade for efforts to curb impunity and corruption. But that initiative, spearheaded by a UN-backed group of international investigators, has been systematically dismantled in recent years as entrenched political and business interests began hounding the country’s anti-corruption judges and prosecutors.
The exclusion of the best candidates in the elections reflects, civil liberties groups say, how elite figures are constantly reasserting their power.
Migration: Guatemalans are among the fastest growing migrant groups in the United States. The number of Guatemalans living in the United States increased by about 33% from 2010 to 2021, from 830,000 to more than 1.1 million.
Various factors push Guatemalans to emigrate, in particular the lack of economic opportunities, with about 59% of the population living below the poverty line.
The United States made fighting corruption and strengthening democracy in Guatemala and other Central American countries a priority early in President Biden’s term, arguing it would stop people from leaving their homelands.
But those efforts have done little to prevent a backsliding of democracy in the region or significantly dent the flow of migrants.
crime: A major theme during the Guatemala campaign season was a call to emulate El Salvador’s crackdown on gangs, underscoring growing frustration with high levels of violent crime.
The number of murders in Guatemala — fueled in part by powerful gangs — climbed almost 6% in 2022 compared to the previous year, and there has also been a sharp increase in the number of murder victims who have shown signs of torture. Many Guatemalans cite fears of extortion and crime as reasons for emigrating.