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Guatemala resumes electoral process for the Presidency amid political and judicial crisis

Amidst the intense electoral, political, and judicial crisis shaking Guatemala, the democratic process takes a new step towards resumption. After weeks of uncertainty and legal confrontations, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) has declared the validity of the first presidential and vice-presidential election held on June 25. However, this announcement fails to dispel the concerns and tensions surrounding the process, as the judicialization and attempts to invalidate the participation of one of the candidates leave the country on the brink of a constitutional crisis. Now, with the second round scheduled for August 20, Guatemala faces crucial challenges to restore confidence in its democratic system and ensure a fair and transparent electoral contest.

By Jairo Videa | @JairoVidea

Ciudad de Guatemala, Guatemala
Bernardo Arévalo on the morning of Friday, July 14, 2023, in the city of Sololá, capital of the department of the same name, in Guatemala, during a visit as part of the presidential runoff campaign | Photo courtesy
Bernardo Arévalo on the morning of Friday, July 14, 2023, in the city of Sololá, capital of the department of the same name, in Guatemala, during a visit as part of the presidential runoff campaign | Photo courtesy

On Friday, July 14, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) of Guatemala published Agreement 1328-2023 in the Diario de Centro América, declaring the validity of the presidential and vice-presidential election held on June 25. According to the agreement, the political parties Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE) and Movimiento Semilla were the two political organizations that obtained the highest number of votes (888,924 and 653,486 valid votes), therefore, they will participate in the second round for the executive branch, scheduled for Sunday, August 20.

However, this electoral process has been surrounded by intense controversy and judicialization that jeopardizes the democratic stability of the Central American country. The Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Michael McCaul, and the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Bob Menéndez, issued a joint statement expressing their concern about the recent threats to democracy in Guatemala. Both politicians expressed their support for the certification of the electoral results by the TSE and highlighted the independent verification carried out by the Observation Mission of the Organization of American States (OAS), which found no serious irregularities.

Nevertheless, both officials from President Joseph Biden's administration expressed their "deep concern" about the attempts by the Guatemalan Attorney General's Office to revoke the legal status of a progressive political party, which they consider a blatant attempt to undermine the will of the Guatemalan people and violate the country's electoral laws.

Recent events have led to various sectors expressing their views on the matter. On Friday, the Board of Directors of the Association of Judges and Magistrates of the Judicial Branch issued a statement in solidarity with Judge Fredy Raúl Orellana Letona, who has been subject to criticism and attacks regarding the court order issued by the criminal court he represents, which instructed the TSE's Citizen Registry to strip Movimiento Semilla of its legal status in the midst of the popular election process. The board categorically rejected the "arbitrary" accusations and attempts to harm the judge's "ethical and professional integrity," in addition to condemning any action that "seeks to harm his physical integrity" or undermine the principle of judicial independence and the rule of law.

In the midst of this situation, an amparo action was filed with the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) by Raúl Falla against the TSE, claiming that the electoral results were made official in contravention of the judicial-criminal resolution that ordered the provisional suspension of the political party Movimiento Semilla.

Movimiento Semilla, whose presidential candidate is Bernardo Arévalo, has continued its campaign activities for the second round of elections in Sololá, despite the legal adversities. On the other hand, the College of Psychologists of Guatemala issued a statement expressing deep concern about the situation the country is going through, reflecting the concerns of various sectors of Guatemalan society.

The Public Prosecutor's Office (MP) of Guatemala is also involved in this crisis, which is already multifactorial. The Special Prosecutor's Office against Impunity (FECI) initiated an investigation against the Semilla party and requested its suspension before the Seventh Criminal Court, despite the fact that the Electoral and Political Parties Law (LEPP), which has constitutional rank, prohibits the cancellation of political entities in the midst of an electoral contest. In a statement issued by the MP on Friday, hours after a raid on the Citizen Registry that lasted more than 10 hours, it was stated that these actions are not intended to interfere in the holding of the second round of elections or disqualify any candidate.

However, the request from the FECI was rejected by the Citizen Registry and by the TSE itself, arguing that it goes against what is dictated by the LEPP and the Political Constitution of Guatemala.

The situation is causing concern at the international level. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Costa Rica issued a message expressing its concern about the judicialization of the electoral process in Guatemala and calling on Guatemala's democratic institutions to provide the necessary guarantees for candidates to participate on equal terms and for citizens to freely express their sovereign will.

The demonstrations on the streets of Guatemala City are also a reflection of the tension and civility experienced in the country. Numerous protesters, mainly young people, gathered at the MP headquarters yesterday (Thursday, July 13) and today, demanding the resignation of the Attorney General, Consuelo Porras, and the officials who attempted to exclude Movimiento Semilla from the electoral contest. "Because they are leaving. The usual ones are leaving," they chanted on Thursday afternoon, while Arévalo and his vice-presidential candidate, Karin Herrera, were at the MP headquarters in Zone 1.

These actions raise further fears of a constitutional rupture, as the country already counts over a hundred journalists, former justice operators, and human rights defenders exiled outside the territory due to the persecution that has taken place from the Public Prosecutor's Office. They directly accuse President Alejandro Giammattei's administration and its manipulation of the process.

In that regard, the Constitutional Court (CC) of Guatemala has distanced itself from the current Executive and the Prosecutor's Office, approving a recourse that guarantees the participation of Bernardo Arévalo, Semilla's candidate, in the second round of the presidential election, scheduled for August 20. This response from the court has temporarily thwarted attempts to eliminate a contender from the race. This attempt is considered a crude move and is criticized both for its illegality and for the fears of a constitutional breakdown.

However, the CC continues to be questioned by lawyers, analysts, and the public. It was the one that ordered, in response to complaints of "irregularities" by at least nine parties - including Cabal, UNE, and the ruling party Vamos - the suspension of the officialization of the electoral results obtained on June 25, when the TSE had already counted over 98.9% of the scrutinized records, and the trend was "definitive," as well as the verification of said results.

Movimiento Semilla has filed criminal complaints against Prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche and Judge Orellana, accusing them of crimes such as failure to fulfill duties, abuse of authority, and resolutions that violate the Constitution. Curruchiche does not enjoy immunity like Judge Orellana, so an appeals court will be responsible for determining whether there are grounds to proceed with a criminal process against the judge.

The resumption of the electoral process in Guatemala amid the judicialization and controversy generated by the attempt to exclude the Movimiento Semilla party highlights the challenges and threats to democracy in the country. The legal actions and attempts to undermine the will of the Guatemalan people generate concern at the national and international levels. The struggle to preserve democratic institutions and ensure transparency in the electoral process is crucial for the future of Guatemala, amidst the judicialization of the second-highest vote in the first round of the presidential election.

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