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Dispatch from Guatemala: Campaigning Ends, The Vote is Next

Above image: Part of a Movimiento Semilla poster for a rally taking place in Guatemala City, August 16, 2023

A campaign poster for Sandra Torres’ UNE party in El Estor, Guatemala, August 2023.

Hey everyone. I am writing from El Estor, Izabal, on the Guatemalan Caribbean Coast this time.

After turbulent weeks marked by extreme legal maneuvers against the ascendant Movimiento Semilla party, the presidential electoral campaign closed this week in Guatemala. Following the August 14 presidential debate, both presidential candidates–Bernardo Arévalo of Semilla and Sandra Torres of the National Unity of Hope party (UNE)–sought to widely share their visions of a country were each to become the president. The Guatemalan electorate is making its final decisions before heading to the polls this Sunday, August 20th. 

Torres’s UNE party, the most enduring electoral vehicle in Guatemala, has embraced fear-mongering as a campaign strategy after pivoting from social democracy to social conservatism. By playing into anti-communist tropes of the wartime era (e.g., anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, against drug legalization), Torres hopes her fourth attempt at the presidency proves the consequential one. However, a poll earlier this month conducted by Al Jazeera put Arévalos’ support at 63% compared with Torres at  37%. In the first round of the general election which took place on June 25, Semilla won 23 seats–up from 6 in 2019, their first election–making the party the third-largest force in the next Congress. 

Arévalo and Semilla have had to clear allegations of fraud and push away the intensified judicial actions against their political organizations that aim to suspend their legal status. Losing legal status would turn them into an ‘independent deputy’ bloc, unable to sit on commissions, preside or sit on the leadership of the unicameral legislature, represent other parties during the four-year term, or obtain public funds from electoral financing. Arévalo would assume office without a party in Congress, facing an uphill battle to implement his reformist agenda.

Semilla has presented itself as a progressive and grassroots alternative to Guatemala’s elitist and increasingly anti-democratic political establishment. Optimism around Arévalo’s campaign coalesced around the anti-corruption messaging: to address crumbling state capacity and captured institutions, Guatemala must root out these entrenched practices.

Arévalo invokes his father, Juan José Arévalo – the first democratically elected president who began the 1944 Revolution – to frame what the future holds. For Semilla and its adherents, it’s not about partisanship or ideologies; rather, it is Democracy that people will vote on on Sunday’s ballot.

I’ll be back next week to share some thoughts on Sunday’s vote after the results are in. 

Vaclav Masek

Vaclav Masek is a researcher, translator, and freelance journalist from Guatemala. Recently, Vaclav completed a Master's degree from the Center of Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS) at New York University (NYU). His interdisciplinary research covers the political histories of Central America in the 20th century, particularly focusing on the Northern Triangle countries–Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. In his capacity as International Volunteers Coordinator for Skylight’s VIVX program, Vaclav provides logistical and technical support to human rights defenders on the ground in Latin America and to volunteers who accompany them virtually.

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