There is great fear that Guatemala’s democracy is weakening beyond the point of return. Amid election fraud, Guatemala has turned into a country of chaos. The protests are threatening lives; as road blockades are preventing food and water from being transported. The strategies being utilized by the elite are becoming more apparent, and protestors are growing angrier. Could the frustration over ongoing corruption finally reach a tipping point?
The August 20th victory of the underdog Guatemalan anti-corruption candidate Bernardo Arevalo raised election interference allegations. The attorney general, Maria Consuelo Porras, claims there were issues with Arevalo’s party registration. However, she only brought these errors up after his victory. Thelma Cabrera, an Indigenous advocate also ran for the presidency this year. After her campaign became popular, she was disqualified “over a paperwork issue with her running mate.” This is not the first time in recent years that Guatemala has faced corruption in office. In 2015, former President Otto Perez Molina, was forced to resign after being arrested and prosecuted by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) for corruption. Furthermore, there were accusations that the ruling elite tried to keep anybody “representing change” off the June ballot. The current administration is widely unpopular. Three years ago protestors set fire to congress after a budget increased legislators meal allowances while also cutting subsidies for school lunches. It seems the only way they could stay in office is by repressing democracy.
There are currently nationwide protests led by Indigenous leaders, who claim Consuelo Porras is preventing Arevalo from taking office. The protest leaders are demanding Consuelo Porras resign, along with other political officials involved in what Arevalo has called a coup d’etat. President Alejandro Giammattei claims he cannot remove Consuelo Porras. The protestors are adamant that the elites attempting to undo the election result to stay in power unconstitutionally. The protests continue to escalate as protestors have blocked key transport roads and borders. If there is no give, a peaceful transition of power in January seems unlikely. When transitions of power are delayed strategically, it is a clear sign that democratic institutions are in trouble.
Democratic backsliding is the dissolution of institutional mechanisms that facilitate democracy, like free and competitive elections. Manipulating elections strategically by keeping opposition off the ballot, as protestors claim has happened in Guatemala, is evidence that democracy is in trouble. Ozan Varol refers to stealth authoritarianism as the use of legal mechanisms that exist in regimes with favorable democratic credentials for anti-democratic ends. One of the key mechanisms for stealth authoritarianism is manipulation of electoral laws which creates barriers to entry. In Guatemala electoral disqualification has been weaponized by the elites in power to restrict change. It’s also notable to mention that electoral manipulation has been an ongoing issue. The goal was to keep competitive candidates off the ballot. Although speculative, many claim that since Bernardo Arevalo was not expected to win, his party was not attacked with “legislative errors” until after he won. If he had been taken off of the ballot prior to a public win, like fellow anti-corruption candidate Thelma Cabrera was, the stealth authoritarian methods could have stayed stealth. Liberal democracy relies on competitive elections, where the barriers to entry are low, as democracy relies on participation. In a country riddled with poverty, there are inherent gaps in representation. For example, despite the Indigenous population making upwards of 50% of the state’s population, they only represent about 11% of elected legislators.
In addition, free media allows for free elections. Guatemala has seen a rising number of attacks on journalists. Earlier this year, Ned Price, the US senior advisor to the secretary of state, released a statement claiming the Persecution of Journalists In Guatemala is deeply concerning. Media outlets are also facing repression. Jose Zamora, a journalist and the El Periodico newspaper founder, was recently imprisoned for money laundering. Many claim this is a political statement meant to “intimidate other journalists and media owners.” Varol also specifically points out the use of non-political crimes to prosecute dissidents as a strategy often implemented during stealth authoritarianism.
In 2018, President Morales chose not to renew the CICIG’s mandate, which was responsible for much of the country’s progress with corruption and impunity. Since the dissolution, corruption has returned. This action by Morales aligns with what is called executive aggrandizement, a weakening of checks and balances or centralization of power. The CIGIC’s responsibilities are now carried out by the public ministry. As Varol pointed out, democracy decays in tandem with weakening bureaucratic restraints.
Overall, it is clear that Guatemala is in precarious times. The current election is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to democratic erosion. Since the dissolution of the CICIG, the Guatemalan government used executive aggrandizement and strategies associated with Varol’s stealth authoritarianism model, like manipulation of electoral laws, to benefit the elites in power. The protests and anti-corruption president elect are evidence that Guatemalan citizens are frustrated with the democratic backsliding. There is consistent evidence that the Guatemalan government is only responsive to its elite, not its citizens.