Guatemalans elect anti-corruption candidate Bernardo Arévalo as next president

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Jessica Ludwig
Director, Global Policy
George W. Bush Institute

In Guatemala, anti-corruption candidate Bernardo Arévalo overcame long odds as voters signaled their support for change in the country’s run-off presidential election on Aug. 20. 

Representing the Semilla Movement anti-corruption party, Arévalo’s victory with 58% of the vote against former first lady Sandra Torres’ 37% comes as a surprise given efforts by entrenched political interests in trying to engineer an outcome that would limit accountability for alleged corruption in the country. Guatemalan voters recognized that the stakes of this presidential election were high after the equivalent of the country’s attorney general office opened an investigation against the Semilla Movement claiming paperwork irregularities shortly after Arévalo qualified as a second-round contender when initial election results were announced in June. The election had earlier been marred by the questionable disqualification of other presidential candidates representing independent political opposition. 

Why This Matters  

Arévalo’s electoral victory represents a crucial check on democratic backsliding that has been accelerating in Central America in recent years. Citizen insecurity, a chronic lack of economic opportunity for ordinary citizens, and corruption involving political elites, narcotraffickers, and other organized criminal networks has undermined the performance of democratic institutions in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, among other regional neighbors. The combination of these dynamics has resulted in poor governance and a sense of instability that has helped fuel the outward migration of citizens from the subregion. 

Citizen frustration with corruption in Guatemala emerged with protest movements in 2015 when the U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala reveled corruption by former Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina, in 2020 when the Guatemalan government slashed the judiciary’s budget, and again in 2021 when current president Alejandro Giammattei’s administration ousted the country’s top anti-corruption prosecutor, Juan Francisco Sandoval. Since then, however, the momentum had seemed to be shifting in favor of authorities who wanted to shield themselves from potential investigation by prosecuting anti-corruption investigators like Virginia Laparra and the owner of the now-shuttered independent media outlet El Periódico, José Rubén Zamora. 

The Bottom Line 

Despite the immediate election results, Arévalo is likely to face steep challenges in the months and years ahead. Guatemala’s political establishment doubled efforts over the past several years to undermine the independence of the judiciary by intimidating judges and lawyers with threats, bribes, and lawsuits. Guatemala’s unicameral congress will remain dominated by parties that are unlikely to support Arévalo’s governance agenda, and the 23 out of 160 legislators who are members of the Semilla Movement party could see their party affiliation challenged if the Public Ministry continues to pursue the allegations it raised about the party’s founding paperwork during the election. International observers will also need to continue a close watch as events unfold over the coming months to prevent government actors from trying to illegally interfere with the democratic transfer of power. Violence from criminal elements who could face investigation by the future Arévalo administration also remains a possibility. 

However, that citizens frustrated with corruption and underperforming governance were allowed to make their voices heard loud and clear on Aug. 20 represents an important sign that Guatemalan citizens still place their faith in democracy and desire accountability.