On October 2nd, mass citizen protests erupted in Guatemala related to Attorney General Maria Consuelo Porras’s efforts to undermine the results of the country’s recent presidential election in favor of Bernardo Arevalo. Coming mainly in the form of highway blockages and demonstrations in front of the Public Ministry, Guatemalans are expressing their frustration with this disruption of the democratic process. Last month, the Public Ministry under Consuelo Porras opened and photographed ballot boxes, jeopardizing the validity of Arevalo’s victory, which had been a ray of hope for the country that has faced decades of corruption and human rights abuses. Consuelo Porras’s actions have been denounced by the Organization of American States (OAS), calling them “extremely [concerning],” and discourage the Guatemalan population’s excitement for Arevalo’s progressive platform. On October 4th, Arevalo moved to restart the presidential transfer of power process, putting potential changes further on hold. The attempted undermining of the election process in Guatemala demonstrates the playbook for edging out potential populist candidates that Levitsky and Ziblatt discuss in “How Democracies Die.” Further, the optimism and timeliness of Arevalo’s proposed solutions raises the question of whether or not candidates with populist qualities can support democracy rather than undermine it in countries with executives that exhibit authoritarianism.
Progressive outsider president elect Bernardo Arevalo was the first candidate Guatemalan voters had believed in decades. With his win in an August runoff election, Arevalo’s progressive platform represented a sharp contrast to the democratically dubious president Alejandro Giammatei. With goals to stomp out executive corruption, support human rights, and protect the country’s environment, Arevalo offers solutions to the deep rooted issues that face Guatemala’s floundering democracy.
Arevalo, however, has some populist characteristics that put into question whether or not he’ll truly be able to turn democracy in Guatemala around. His party, called Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement), evokes ideas of the country’s marginalized groups rising up. The country’s majority indigenous population has been disenfranchised by the current government — Arevalo represents the anti-establishment sentiments that typically characterize populists. Giammattei has publicly resisted the sentiment that Arevalo represents the country’s collective will. That said, his platform seems to directly correlate with the issues that have been on the minds of the Guatemalan population for years, especially related to Consuelo Porras.
Typically, the rise of populism in countries with existing democratic problems signals the need for more caution and a further decline in the quality of the democracy. Though Arevalo’s platform seems progressive, combating corruption at higher levels is mainly an elite-on-elite battle. That said, the corruption in Guatemala impacts local communities as well. The country’s judicial branch, despite recent attention on higher level judges and authorities being forced into exile, has deep rooted issues with local judges that have been less high-profile. Media attention places much of the onus on Consuelo Porras for the demonstrations, but what really affects Guatemalan citizens’ daily lives is corruption in local judicial and mayoral spheres. In July 2022, two indigenous authorities met with lawmakers in Washington DC with a goal of landing a local corrupt mayor on the Engel List, the US’s list of corrupt actors. Locally, the situation is just as dire and maybe more pressing.
Giammatti’s July 2023 reappointment of Consuelo Porras showed the weakening state of Guatemala’s democracy, and outed his authoritarian tendencies internationally. This raises the question: is a candidate with populist characteristics actually positive for democracy in countries with corrupt or authoritarian leaders? Arevalo is not a Trump-like populist like other Latin American countries have seen (Jair Bolsonaro, Nayib Bukele). Rather, he has progressive goals that represent what many Guatemalans actually want.
Former president Giammatei and his Attorney General, Consuelo Porras, exhibit some of the strategies that Ziblatt and Levistsky detail for gatekeeping populists. As I exhibited above, Giammattei has been public in his engagement with Arevalo on X or in press statements. Muller notes that not allowing possible populist candidates to rise on their own. Similarly, though Giammattei was ineligible for another term, it took a runoff election to allow Arevalo to force his way through partisan hurdles. Of course, Giammattei will not endorse Arevalo in a further effort to maintain power. As the transition of power process continues, we will further see how Giammattei plays the situation.
After decades facing rampant executive corruption, frequent human rights abuses, and environmental neglect, can a little populism be what Guatemala needs to overcome these deeply rooted issues? The recent demonstrations show how united the population is, despite efforts to stop them by the current government. Organized by groups of indigenous authorities, people from all levels of Guatemala’s socioeconomic sphere have participated. When corruption is so entrenched in the government structure, from top to bottom, a candidate who seems to genuinely represent the common will of the country can make progressive change. Though Levitsky and Ziblatt claim that there is no “common will,” Arevalo’s platform comes close to depicting the needs of the masses. Guatemala is a special case because its majority indigenous population is uncommon, resulting in a situation where the largest group still experiences abuses at the hands of the government. Though an elite group has been in charge, it was only a matter of time until a candidate like Arevalo broke through.
I suggest that when discussing populism, a country’s context should be considered before outright stating that it is dangerous to democracy. Though populism can be seen as a symptom of a weak democracy, in Guatemala’s case it may be more of a solution. In places where there is a psychology of frustration as human rights abuses and corruption run rampant under authoritarian-like leaders, a grass-roots approach can be effective. As news progresses on the demonstrations and Arevalo’s presidency, we will come to see if his progressive,somewhat populist way works for Guatemala, or if it will face further resistance as it has in many Latin American democratic experiments.