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HomeOpinionCommentaryGuatemala: Lessons in the fight for democratic integrity

Guatemala: Lessons in the fight for democratic integrity

By Sir Ronald Sanders

It was a prophesy foretold – the eruption of violence in the face of attempts to disqualify from office a president and his party who were elected by the overwhelming majority of the electorate in Guatemala.

In the early hours of Thursday, November 16 (Eastern Standard Time), clashes between demonstrators and police erupted in Guatemala City, the Capital of the Central American state of Guatemala, as stones were hurled at politicians leaving the National Congress.

The demonstrators, likely supporters of the Semilla Party of Bernardo Arévalo, who was elected as President of the country with over 61 percent of the vote, were provoked by several actions by the attorney-general and the public ministry to overturn the popular will of the people, as expressed at the ballot box.

Space was created for controversial actions because there is a waiting period between the election of the president and his installation. Arévalo was elected in run-off elections on August 20, 2023, but cannot be installed until January 14, 2024. 

The executive of the Guatemala government, including the sitting president, Alejandro Giammattei, claim that the attorney-general, María Consuelo Porras, and the office of the public prosecutor, are “independent offices”, free to act in their own judgement without interference.  However, from the outset of Arévalo’s election, the public ministry has taken several steps to disqualify Arévalo and the Semilla Party. 

On 16 November, the public ministry announced that it will seek the withdrawal of immunity of Arévalo and his vice president-elect, Karin Herrera. Both were subsequently named in an indictment for allegedly making social media posts that encouraged students to take over a public university more than a year ago.

The meeting of the National Congress on 15 November, consisting mostly of representatives of parties that failed to be elected in the July 2023 elections, appeared to set up the mechanism for what could be a prejudiced court by packing the supreme court with their own nominees. 

Additionally, the National Civil Police and the Public Ministry carried out a raid on 31 properties in Guatemala City and other departments in search of individuals for whom arrest warrants have been issued for various crimes, including sedition and terrorism. Many have already been taken into custody. University students and professors, as well as a young former Semilla party candidate for congress, Marcela Blanco, are among those that will be charged with sedition. 

For over a year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has been drawing attention “to the actions of the public prosecutor’s office that jeopardize the constitutional order and the independence of the branches of government.”

On October 4, 2023, in an unequivocal statement, the IACHR noted that there is “continual interference in the electoral process in the form of interpretations of regulations and practices that effectively prevented individuals and political parties from taking part in the elections”. It also stated its concerns about the attempt to suspend the registration of the Semilla Party, as a legal entity, to prevent its members from being awarded public positions.

All these concerns have now come to pass, despite the best efforts of the member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) and its secretary-general, Luis Almagro. 

On September 1, 2023, the Permanent Council of the OAS adopted a resolution to support an orderly transition of power in Guatemala. Almagro and his team undertook several visits to Guatemala, engaging with all parties, to try to ensure a smooth transition. But while he pointed to the dedication of representatives of Giammattei and Arévalo to achieve the handover of office on January 14, 2024, he criticised several actions of the public ministry. These included: raids on the offices of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal at which ballot boxes were confiscated. He described these actions as “a serious violation and deviation from representative democracy and the electoral procedure”, stating that “they have harmed the political will, the chain of custody, and the right that is protected in the Political Constitution of Guatemala.”

The majority of member states of the OAS shared Almagro’s anxieties over events in Guatemala. Many representatives felt that the public ministry had resorted to “lawfare”. Lawfare is the use of legal systems and institutions to damage or delegitimize an opponent, or to deter an individual’s usage of their legal rights. It can also be a tactic used by repressive regimes to label and discourage civil society or individuals from claiming their legal rights via national or international legal systems. 

Altogether, the OAS Permanent Council met seven times to discuss the situation in Guatemala. On each occasion, the Council listened to the positions of the Guatemala delegation, and even agreed to defer consideration of a Resolution at Guatemala’s request. However, the Council consistently expressed alarm at the actions by the public ministry which were seen as potentially undermining the rule of law in an effort to overturn the will of the electorate in Guatemala.  

At a Council meeting on 15 November 2023, under my chairmanship, 20 countries voted in favour of a Resolution calling upon “all institutions of the State of Guatemala, including the executive, judicial and legislative branches, as well as the public prosecutor’s office [-] to stop or prevent, as appropriate, any act of intimidation of electoral officials, the Movimiento Semilla party, and those who have been elected”. Only Guatemala voted against, 8 countries abstained, and four delegations were absent.

Regrettably, disregarding all the cautions of the IACHR and the OAS member states, and the efforts of the secretary-general, the public ministry has continued its actions to manipulate the law for a political objective – to overturn the will of the electorate, and to stop the installation of Arévalo as president of Guatemala.

However, if there is continued violation of the law, including arresting and disqualifying the elected president of Guatemala, the consequences could be grave indeed. 

Every support will be given to all the branches of the government in Guatemala to take the actions necessary for respecting and upholding the electoral result. They should move to do so swiftly in the interest of maintaining democracy, the rule of law and peaceful development.

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