Guatemala’s runoff election: Out of the frying pan, into the fire?
Alejando Giammattei, newly elected president of Guatemala. | Oliver de Ros/AP

On Sunday Aug.11, Guatemala held the second round of its presidential elections, to decide between the two biggest vote-getters in the June 16 first round. The result was a clear victory for right-winger Dr. Alejandro Giammattei of the Vamos (“Let’s Go”) party. Giammettei got 57.95 percent of the vote against 42.05 percent for former first lady Sandra Torres of the social-democratic National Union of Hope or UNE party.

Like its neighbor Honduras, Guatemala, a country with 17.2 million people, has been the site of very large anti-corruption protests for several years. In 2015, the protests helped to force the resignation of president Otto Pérez Molina, a right-wing general, who is now in prison.

In the elections which followed, the victor was the current president, TV comedian Jimmy Morales, who campaigned on a clean government platform. But his major support came from former military officers whose hands were anything but clean, and who saw Morales as their insurance against being brought to book for corruption and for outrageous crimes against humanity during the Guatemalan Civil War, especially during the dictatorships of Generals Romeo Lucas García, Efraín Ríos Montt and Oscar Humberto Mejía Victores in the 1980s.

Morales showed his appreciation by working to end corruption investigations that had been carried out by a special U.N.-sponsored body, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG. The CICIG had also been investigating Morales himself and members of his family. The CICIG had asked the Guatemalan Congress to remove Morales’ presidential immunity from prosecution but did not succeed.

In Guatemala, a president cannot run for reelection, and once Morales is out of office he runs the risk of being prosecuted either in Guatemala or the United States on serious corruption charges. In the June 16 first round, Morales’ National Convergence Front candidate, Estuardo Galdámez, was trounced and National Convergence was almost wiped out in the legislative races.

The top two presidential vote-getters were Sandra Torres of UNE (National Unity of Hope) party, with 25.54 percent, and Giammattei with 13.95 percent. Though some assumed that the odds favored Torres, this was an illusion. The votes that were lost to Galdámez went to Giammattei. And there was little enthusiasm for Torres, who has also been accused of malfeasance. She had been Morales’ main opponent in the 2015 presidential election. She had also tried to run in the 2011 presidential election. As the wife of outgoing president Alvaro Colom, she was barred from running under the Guatemalan constitution, but she tried but failed to get around this by divorcing her husband.

When the election season started, the front runner appeared to be Thelma Aldana, a former attorney general highly respected for the anti-corruption work she did in tandem with the CICIG. Aldana had played a major role in the fall of ex-president Pérez Molina and had been involved in the investigation of Morales also.

She formed a new party, Semilla (The Seed) to carry forward her candidacy, and the polls favored her. But on the same day she filed her election papers, she was accused of corruption herself, and her right to run for president was denied. She is now living in exile. Some Guatemalans suspect that the case against Aldana was cooked up to sabotage an anti-corruption presidential candidacy.

In fact, some voters in Sunday’s elections appear to have spoiled their ballots by writing “Thelma” across them, though there was another Thelma in the June election, Maya indigenous leftist Thelma Cabrera. The candidate of the Movement for the Liberation of the Peoples, came in fourth on June 16 with a surprising 10.37 percent of the vote.

Under these circumstances, it is also not surprising that the voter turnout on Sunday was extremely low, 40.39 percent, less in some areas. This is in spite of the fact that voting is mandatory in Guatemala, though this does not appear to be strictly enforced.

Patterns of voting showed a sharp distinction between urban centers (cities and especially the capitals of departments, as provinces are called) and more rural areas. Giammattei swept almost all the urban centers, even in departments where Torres got more votes overall.

The population of Guatemala is at least 40 percent indigenous, though some think that figure is as high as 60 percent. The largely rural indigenous Maya people suffered greatly during the military dictatorships that followed the overthrow of left-leaning President Jacobo Arbenz by the U.S. Central Intelligence agency in 1954.

This has been called the “Guatemalan genocide”, which is not an exaggeration. More than 200,000 people were murdered by the armed forces and death squads, a large majority of them Maya indigenous men, women, and children. Political participation has sometimes meant taking your life in your hands. There is a direct continuity from the people who carried out the genocide to powerful contemporary politicians, Pérez Molina and Morales included.

The victor in Sunday’s election, Dr. Giammettei, has also been accused of human rights violations. In 2006, he was the head of Guatemala’s prison system.

In response to what he claimed was criminal gang control of a prison farm near Guatemala City, Giammettei launched an attack by 3,000 police and soldiers against the prisoners. Seven prisoners were killed. Several years later, an investigation by the CICIG revealed that it was likely that, rather than being killed in a firefight, the prisoners who died had been simply executed without trial, in some cases after being tortured. Giammattei ended up being held in prison for ten months until in 2011 the case against him was dropped for “lack of evidence.”

The relevance of this is that in this year’s presidential campaigns, Giammattei had strongly stressed what in Spanish is called “la mano dura” – the hard hand, repressive policies — as his preferred method of dealing with crime and security problems. He has promised to bring back the death penalty, which had been declared unconstitutional for ordinary crimes in 2017. He is also a vocal opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage. When asked how he will govern given the fact that UNE has a large contingent in the Congress, he suggested he will go after UNE for corruption and try to eliminate it. He has also threatened to enact laws to restrict the right to protest.

Like Morales, he says he will not continue the mandate of the CICIG (Torres said the same during the elections). Rather, Giammettei says, he will create a new anti-corruption entity with the cooperation of the United States, Israel, and Taiwan, not the United Nations. Impunity will continue.

Just before the August 11 vote, U.S. President Donald Trump got Jimmy Morales to agree that Guatemala should serve as a “third safe country” where refugees from neighboring countries would ask for asylum instead of coming to the United States. People in Guatemala and beyond were incredulous—since Guatemala has not even been able to protect its own people from violence, and given the country’s extreme poverty, how is it going to suddenly host thousands of refugees from elsewhere? Both of Sunday’s presidential candidates expressed strong doubts about the feasibility of this agreement. Giammattei now says he will try to renegotiate the deal, which has not been approved by Guatemala’s Congress, with the Trump administration.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.