Concerns over Guatemalan democracy after leading party suspended

Presidential candidate Sandra Torres has paused her campaign in solidarity with progressive rival Bernardo Arevalo.

While people march, waving Guatemalan flags, a man holds up a handwritten sign.
A protester holds a sign that reads, ‘We do not want any more of the old political parasites. Rise up, people, to defend yourself’ [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

Guatemala City, Guatemala – Critics fear Guatemala’s fragile democracy is at risk after the country’s top prosecutor successfully requested the suspension of one of the two political parties in August’s presidential run-off.

“The public prosecutor’s office will not rest until there is a rupture of our democracy,” said Marielos Chang, an independent Guatemalan political analyst, echoing widespread concerns about election interference.

The suspension occurred on Wednesday evening, nearly two and a half weeks after the progressive Seed Movement unexpectedly emerged as one of two victors in the first round of voting.

The results meant that its candidate, Bernardo Arevalo, would face off against Sandra Torres of the right-wing National Unity of Hope (UNE) party on August 20.

A man in a dark suit and red tie speaks into a microphone, surrounded by supporters
Seed Movement presidential candidate Bernardo Arevalo during a press conference on July 12, 2023, just hours before his party was suspended [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

But almost immediately, Arevalo’s political rivals contested the election results. And on Wednesday, hours after the electoral authority certified the vote, his party was suspended, its legal authority to campaign and organise revoked.

For observers like Chang, the move was nothing less than “a direct attack on our political system”.

“Their actions will seek to stop the participation of the party in the second round, putting our democracy at risk,” she said.

Torres herself announced she would suspend her campaign in protest against Wednesday’s actions, calling for a level playing field as the second round of voting approaches.

“We want to demonstrate our solidarity with the voters of the Seed party and also with those to came out to vote,” Torres said. “As a candidate, I want to compete under equal conditions.”

And by Thursday afternoon, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court had weighed in, granting an injunction against the Seed Movement’s suspension.

A woman in a white suit and black shirt speaks into a cluster of microphones.
National Unity of Hope presidential candidate Sandra Torres has announced she will halt her campaign after her rival’s party was suspended [Guatemala Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza handout/Reuters]

Questions of legality

The case against the Seed Movement is being led by Rafael Curruchiche, the head of the Office of the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity.

In a video posted on Twitter on Wednesday, Curruchiche charged that there were irregularities in the 5,000 signatures the Seed Movement gathered when it formed as a political organisation.

On Thursday morning, Curruchiche’s boss and political ally, Attorney General María Consuelo Porras, ordered a raid on the offices of Guatemala’s election authority to seize voting documents. A second raid was anticipated for the Seed Movement’s headquarters.

Political and constitutional law analysts consulted by Al Jazeera have called the actions illegal.

A man in a grey suit stands in a courtroom.
Rafael Curruchiche, head of the Office of the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity, suspended the Seed Movement over alleged signature irregularities [File: Moises Castillo/AP Photo]

They point out that the order against the Seed Movement violates Article 92 of Guatemala’s Electoral and Political Parties Law, which governs the electoral process and political parties. The article says a political party cannot be suspended during an election.

“We are witnessing a technical coup,” Luis Mack, a Guatemalan political analyst and professor, told Al Jazeera. “There is a clear and open attempt to alter the popular will expressed in the ballot box.”

The head of Guatemala’s electoral authority, Irna Palencia, has likewise called Thursday’s raid “an invasion”. She told reporters she was not informed in advance of the Seed Party’s suspension.

A woman in a black dress with puffy sleeves walks across a room decorated with a Guatemalan flag.
Supreme Electoral Tribunal President Irma Palencia leaves a press conference in Guatemala City on July 12, 2023 [Wilder Lopez/AP Photo]

Doubts over election integrity

The suspension and raid are the latest twists in an already tumultuous presidential race.

Prior to the June 25 first round, three candidates were disqualified due to alleged problems with their paperwork.

And in the wake of the vote, the Constitutional Court delayed the certification of the results until a review of the contested ballots could be conducted. That review had been requested by 10 political parties, including the UNE.

The court’s inspection, which finished on July 6, ultimately found only minor voting irregularities.

A group of people, some carrying handwritten signs and Guatemalan flags, march across an intersection under a grey, stormy sky.
Protesters march towards the electoral council’s building during a student-led demonstration on July 8, 2023 [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

But Curruchiche’s actions have renewed scrutiny of the Seed Movement, which campaigned on an anti-corruption platform.

Both Curruchiche and Porras have themselves been accused of corruption. In 2022, the United States Department of State sanctioned Porras for obstructing anti-corruption investigations “to protect her political allies and gain undue political favor”.

Curruchiche, meanwhile, was denounced for “disrupting high-profile corruption cases against government officials and raising apparently spurious claims” against the lawyers leading those investigations.

A man in a dark vest and baseball cap enters an office with filing cabinets.
A police officer from the attorney general’s office raids the headquarters of Guatemala’s electoral authority on July 13, 2023 [Moises Castillo/AP Photo]

International community responds

The US has since joined with other members of the international community in expressing concern over the Seed Party’s suspension.

The European Union has said this week’s actions threaten “one of the basic foundations of democracy: respect for the popular will expressed at the polls”.

The Organisation of American States, meanwhile, reiterated “its deep concern” about the election. It called on Guatemala to adhere to its electoral laws, which bar the suspension of parties in the midst of an election.

“There is a great concern in the international community,” said Ana Maria Mendez, Central America director for the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and advocacy group.

Men in black jackets labelled "MP" enter an office with files lining the walls.
The attorney general’s office seizes documents relating to vote tallies during a raid at the headquarters of Guatemala’s electoral authority on July 13, 2023 [Moises Castillo/AP Photo]

“It is essential that the constitutional order of Guatemala be respected and that the authority of the Supreme Electoral Council be respected regarding the elections,” she told Al Jazeera. “This is an unprecedented crisis in Guatemala.”

Mendez said it was a positive sign that many sectors of society, including businesses, were protesting the Seed Party’s suspension. On Thursday, for example, a leading business council issued a press statement calling on the electoral authority to press for strict adherence to the law.

“But on the other hand, we also see a public prosecutor’s office [being] increasingly authoritarian, acting outside the law with hidden interests,” she added.

Source: Al Jazeera