Results suggest conservative fear-mongering failed to connect with an electorate weary of corruption and inequality
The victory on Sunday of progressive politician Bernardo Arévalo in Guatemala’s presidential runoff suggests that voters’ primary concerns are corruption and poverty – rather than conservatives’ fear-mongering about abortion and LGBTQ rights.
Arévalo, a 64-year-old sociologist who ran for the centre-left Semilla (Seed) party, secured a resounding win, with 58.01% of the vote, while his contender Sandra Torres, former first lady and leader of the UNE (Unidad Nacional por la Esperanza, National Unity for Hope) party, got 37.24%.
Arévalo’s victory marks a departure from a political scene dominated by right-leaning figures aligned with the economic elite. He is expected to be the most progressive president in the almost 40 years since the restoration of democracy.
However, Arévalo – son of Guatemala’s first democratically elected president Juan José Arévalo – took a cautious approach on sensitive issues for this socially conservative country, notably sexual and reproductive rights.
In an interview with openDemocracy last month, the now-elected president went no further than promising to apply the existing law, which renders abortion illegal unless the parent’s life is at risk, and to deploy sexual education efforts to prevent unwanted pregnancies, which are particularly high among adolescents and girls. (Official figures show that 65,501 girls and young women between 15 and 19 gave birth in 2021, while another 1,805 girls aged ten to 14 became mothers.)
Arévalo also said his government would fight discrimination and hate speech against LGBTQ people, but offered no concrete proposal on policies or legal changes.
What set him apart, though, was his refusal to endorse the ‘Life and Family’ declaration, a campaign spearheaded by the ultra-conservative and influential group Family Matters (AFI) which advocates supposedly traditional family values, stringent opposition to abortion rights and equal marriage, and the appointment of like-minded individuals to executive positions.
His choice drew attention and triggered a smear campaign led by his opponent Sandra Torres, who attacked Arévalo and Semilla, accusing them of championing “pro-abortion and pro-LGBTQ” ideals. Torres’ move raised eyebrows – given her past identification as a centre-leftist and her advocacy for LGBTQ rights – and eventually proved unsuccessful.
For the Maya k’iche’ anthropologist Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, a youth-dominated demographic played a pivotal role in Arévalo’s win, challenging the older, more conservative generation. Under-30s represent over 61% of the Guatemalan population. In this year’s election, more than nine million people were eligible to vote. Among them, the largest population subset were those aged between 18 and 25 years, amounting to 15% of the total.
Operating under the moniker “Uncle Bernie”, Arévalo successfully tapped TikTok and Twitter to engage followers with a blend of politically charged content and relatable messaging – from discussing poverty and human rights to invoking global pop sensation Taylor Swift. This approach struck a chord with younger voters with a “broader perspective on rights compared to earlier generations,” Velásquez said.
Meanwhile, Torres had secured influential religious support – including by naming an Evangelical pastor as her vice-presidential candidate – but this failed to translate into ballots, despite the swift growth of Evangelical churches, projected to surpass Catholicism as the dominant religion in Guatemala by 2030.
“It seems that they [conservative religious voters] might have either abstained from voting or cast their ballots against this radically conservative strategy, marking a departure from their religious background,” Velásquez added.
‘Transition to democracy’ will be good enough
For 31-year-old digital designer Luis de León, who voted for Semilla, the Arévalo family is inextricably linked to the fight for democracy. “The image of [the elected president’s] father is a super strong factor when it comes to voting because of his legacy as a democratic leader,” he said.
As a voter, his primary concern is “stopping the inertia of the co-opted state that we have now. It will be good enough for me to have an executive branch that serves the people”. For him, Arévalo, aiming to be the most progressive president since the return to democracy nearly 40 years ago, will preside over a period of transition.
“Although he was cautious about topics like sexual diversity rights and abortion, I feel that is OK, because the way I see it, this is a perfect transitional government from a corrupt state to a democracy,” he added.
Since the end of the civil war in 1996, the largest economy in Central America has experienced a series of setbacks. Efforts to strengthen the rule of law and the judiciary, which materialised in 2006 with the UN-supported International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), came to an end in 2018 when then-president Jimmy Morales chose to not extend the mandate of this body that was investigating him and his family for corruption. Since then, key democratic institutions – the Judicial Power and the Prosecutor Office – have lost independence.
Feminist activist Olga Villalta, in charge of Semilla’s communications, thinks that public discontent with status quo political parties drove support for Arévalo, whose strategy focused on anti-corruption and dodged extreme positions. “What initially attracted people to this party was its avoidance of both far-right and far-left stances,” she said.
Villalta also believes Arévalo’s personality, away from the typical mould of loud, aggressive populists, played a role. “They [the voters] could or could not share his views on abortion, for example, but they valued his well-informed and poised responses. This attribute garnered considerable respect for him as a candidate,” she said.
Arévalo was not the first choice of Ilse Caballeros, a 35-year-old woman who works for a charity that assists people with disabilities. She decided to vote for him after the Indigenous candidate Thelma Cabrera was banned from the election. Still, this is the first time she has felt genuinely excited about an election result.
“I resonate with his [offering] because it’s not centred on quick fixes and social handouts,” she said. “He doesn’t make hollow promises, and his message is inclusive. It might be a leap of faith, right? But there’s no harm in that.”
Threats and hopes lying ahead
In his press conference after the election, Arévalo praised the voters who stood up for “democratic values” and promised his victory would open a new democratic spring for Guatemala.
But the path to inauguration in January 2024 appears rough. The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights yesterday urged the Guatemalan state to take precautionary measures to protect Arevalo and the vice-president-elect Karin Herrera Aguilar from two alleged murder plots.
Rafael Curruchiche – accused by the US Department of State of involvement in “significant corruption” and “obstruction of investigations into acts of corruption” – has threatened Arévalo’s party with arrest warrants and other measures to be taken after the elections, following his opening of a case against Semilla for supposed illegal registration. It was one of repeated attempts to bar the party from the electoral process.
Villalta, co-founder of the Semilla party, painted a grim picture for abortion rights in the near future. “It’s a battle I’m committed to,” she said, “though I don’t foresee a law being enacted within the next 30 years.” There is a conservative majority in Congress – but, Villalta added, Arévalo could use executive powers to bring in progressive public policies and reverse some of the work of the previous administration without requiring congressional approval.
Her party doesn’t explicitly define itself as feminist, but is open to considering proposals from feminist and LGBTQ movements to shape public policies, she added. For now, most progressive groups and media outlets seem convinced and have given Semilla their support.
The incumbent president Alejandro Giammattei forged alliances with religious and conservative groups, vowing to resist abortion and equal marriage rights. In 2020, his government endorsed the anti-abortion Geneva Consensus, championed by former US president Donald Trump and supported by authoritarian regimes. In 2021, Giammattei introduced a “Life and Family Policy” aimed at dismantling sexual and reproductive health services and rights for women and LGBTQ people.
A policy change at hand is sexual education. “Advancements in sexual education within the Ministry of Education are attainable,” Villalta said. “Semilla promotes dialogue and is committed to upholding international agreements ratified by the state, such as comprehensive sex education. The state has made commitments, and the incoming government will honour them.”
A role for indigenous people?
Official statistics shed some light on the ongoing struggles faced by Guatemala. A staggering 54% of the population live in poverty, and malnutrition affects half of all children. Guatemala stands out as the country with least budget for social policies, according to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Indigenous peoples, who account for 44% of Guatemala’s population, face pervasive discrimination and nearly 22% of them endure extreme poverty.
Anthropologist Velásquez thinks the Arévalo government should involve Indigenous and rural communities in discussions about development.
“It won’t be him and his team sequestered in the capital who decide which are the needs of the communities,” said Velásquez. “Instead, the very members of these communities will take charge of prioritising their own necessities.”
While Arevalo has made pledges to rectify historical neglect, exclusion, and discrimination, it remains to be seen how effectively these promises will be fulfilled. Throughout the campaign, he has held meetings with indigenous authorities from diverse Maya communities, ostensibly to listen and explore prospects for collaboration.
This matter carries significant weight for voters as well. Devolving and decentralising decisions seems to be a popular expectation ahead of the new administration.
As a voter, Caballeros wants to see a government that works on the ground and listens to the needs of indigenous peoples, including in their own languages.
The main challenge is governing wisely, according to Velásquez. “In a Central America increasingly veering towards authoritarianism, Guatemala’s ability to resist this trend offers hope not only for the nation but also for the entire region,” she said.
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