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Bernardo Arévalo: “We will not allow the elections to be stolen”

Semilla Movement candidate: “We are proposing for Guatemala to end its system of corrupt governments.”

Bernardo Areválo Guatemala

The candidate for the presidency of Guatemala for the Movimiento Semilla party, Bernardo Arévalo. Photo: EFE | Confidencial

Carlos F. Chamorro

10 de julio 2023

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On Sunday, June 25, elections were held in Guatemala, in which against all odds Bernardo Arévalo, the candidate of the Semilla movement, a progressive social democratic party that appeared in eighth place in the polls, obtained second place with 11.7% of the votes. This would allow him to go to the second round of elections on August 20 with Sandra Torres, candidate of the National Unity of Hope (UNE), who obtained 15.8% of the vote.

However, two weeks later, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal has still not confirmed the results, alleging that it must comply with a mandate of the Constitutional Court to address the challenges presented by the losing parties and to carry out a collation of the electoral records.


The impasse has caused deep concern among electoral observers in Guatemala and in the international community, who warn that the legal-bureaucratic labyrinth underway aims at derailing the electoral process and circumventing the popular will at the ballot box.

The “surprise candidate” himself, Bernardo Arévalo, admits in this interview with Esta Semana and CONFIDENCIAL that “there is a risk that they will try to remove us by spurious means from the second round of elections, to insert the candidate of the ruling party,” but he called on the support of the population and the “anti-system vote,” to proclaim that “we are not going to let the elections be stolen.”

Arévalo, son of President Juan José Arévalo, who led Guatemala's “democratic spring” after the fall of General Jorge Ubico's regime in 1944, proposes to Guatemalans “the real possibility of putting an end to the system of corrupt governments that capture the institutions and are the cause of the economic, social and political deterioration of Guatemala in the last 20 years.”

The electoral impasse

The review of the Electoral Tribunal ordered by the Constitutional Court on the results of the first round of elections, in which your candidacy came in second place, began last Tuesday. What is the expected outcome of this review in the next 15 days? 

The outcome of the process that is underway should be to certify that the result of the June 25 elections corresponds with the collation that has been made, and then there is nothing else to do but to declare the final result and call for the next round of elections.

We have never been concerned about the process of vote collation, because we have always been sure that the only thing it will do is to confirm the June 25 results. The problem is that along the way they may try to make all kinds of legal tricks, in fact, this whole process of vote comparison has no legal basis, it does not exist in the Guatemalan legislation, and we are seeing how processes and procedures are invented under the protection of a judicial system that is co-opted to generate spaces where what worries us is the possibility that they may try to indefinitely postpone the call for the second round of elections. This could generate a scenario like the one we currently have with the Supreme Court of Justices, that since it was not possible to carry out the election through the established procedure, the decision was to keep them in office for four more years until there are new elections. 

We think that this is a risk that exists at this moment. That, or to apply one of the formulas that were applied to Arzú, Pineda, or Cabrera, to remove us by spurious means from the second round in order to place the candidate of the ruling party, Manuel Conde.

What is the balance at the Electoral Tribunal, since one of the losing candidates, Edmond Mulet, for example, declared that there is no discrepancy between the official results and those of his party, but there are other parties that insist on a recount of votes. What would happen if the Electoral Tribunal accepts to open the ballot boxes? Would the second round be at risk?

First, it would be absolutely illegal. Second, it would open the door to that deadlock process we have been talking about with all kinds of resources in all directions around this issue. And third, it would really be the end of the confidence that remained in the electoral authorities and the process in Guatemala. But as far as we are concerned, the process has been moving forward. The collation of the tally sheets has been concluded in several of the departments of the country and I am talking about at least seven departments or eight departments, and in all of them, the result of June 25 has been confirmed. So we are attentive to see how it continues to develop.

Many people still wonder how Semilla, a predominantly urban political party, jumped from eighth place in the poll projections to second place in the first-round results.

I believe that part of the question should be asked to the opinion poll industry because evidently there has to be a review of the methodologies and mechanisms. For us, it was very clear throughout the whole process that the opinion polls were not reflecting reality, because we did not have our own data, our own surveys, but the response we found in our travels throughout the country contrasted enormously with what the opinion polls were saying. 

So, we realized that there was a phenomenon that was not being registered by the pollsters and that was going to give us a result at the ballot box that was completely different from what was being predicted. 

We did not have the data to say that we were going to go to the second round, but all our work was aimed at that. There were those who thought we were going to be in third or fourth place and it was a pleasant surprise to see that all the effort put into a contact campaign, an ant campaign, walking the streets, talking in markets, sitting in the squares, generating contact with the youth through the networks, not only sending messages but also generating dialogue. All this bore the fruit we were looking for and there was a mobilization of 12% of the country's population that practically said we cannot go on and we have hope and confidence that the Semilla movement can fight the system.

Between fear and the anti-system vote

Although the majority of those who reject the system voted null, 17%, 6% voted blank. What does this null vote represent? Can Semilla capitalize on this vote in its favor and avoid abstention in a second round? 

The null vote is fundamentally an anti-establishment vote. The objective of a campaign that was led by some of the candidates that had been excluded from the electoral process by trickery was to force a second election, to reach 50% plus one of the votes to force a new election, where there could be the possibility of having different candidates and regrouping all the organizations. 

This did not happen, but it is a vote of rejection to the system that now finds that in the runoff there is an option that was also fighting against the system and that has the same objectives, but that did it from within the electoral process and is now positioned for the next round. We believe that much of that protest vote will come naturally, but after we clarify that the objectives are the same for our movement.

Sandra Torres has lost twice in the second round and has a strong negative vote in urban areas, but she has the backing of the government machinery, the other political parties, and the economic elite. Can she run a polarized campaign to generate fear against the Semilla movement among the voters?

She is making a campaign of fear. She has run out of arguments and what she is doing is a campaign based on absolute lies, with things ranging from the claim that we are communists, that we are going to put an end to freedom of worship, that we are going to expropriate churches. That is to say, it really is already at absurd levels, but we have to remember the credibility she has for the Guatemalan population. That negative vote, which is practically the only certain vote that exists in Guatemala, indicates that it has zero credibility. So what we are finding is that the population has reacted to these absolutely unfounded accusations in a spontaneous way, where we are not the ones who are arguing but there is a very strong public dialogue, because it is in the networks but it is in the streets, evidencing that what is being done is resorting to lies and fabrications.

A program against corruption

What does Semilla propose to the electorate in this second round, and who are its potential allies?

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We are proposing the real possibility of putting an end to the system of corrupt governments that capture the institutions and that are the cause of the economic, social, and political deterioration that Guatemala has suffered in the last 20 years. And the allies are the population itself. We have established very clearly that we are not going to make alliances with corrupt political parties. That would be a contradiction to what we are looking for, but we are talking with the different sectors of society, we are building bridges with the different sectors, we have found a lot of responsiveness, we have found that many sectors clearly understand that what is at stake is not exclusively that if Semilla goes to the second round and wins the elections, but the possibility of having a country that returns to seeks its way to a rule of law, to democracy with social justice, to a framework of public liberties where corruption is already a problem to solve, but it is not the heart of the political system.

But how do you propose to face the problem of corruption if the justice system itself is corrupt and has been dismantling the system that existed in Guatemala before and that was a reference even in Central America, of judges, of prosecutors who fought against impunity?

What is going to change is that we are going to remove the central gear from the machinery of corruption. The machinery of corruption that exists in Guatemala today works from a central gear that is the executive government because the oil that lubricates the functioning of all the gears depends on the Executive, which are the funds of the national budget. It is around the funds for the construction of public works that all the loyalties and compromises are being woven between congressional officials, officials of the Executive, and officials at the municipal level. By breaking that gear within that formula, the incentives through which corruption works will start to change and we will be able to start to see new avenues to dismantle that corrupt co-optation that exists and very importantly, dismantling the justice system, which has been one of the key pieces that have managed to kidnap and from where the harassment of any person, institution, organization that becomes an obstacle to the functioning of this corrupt system has been conducted.

The judicial sentence against journalist José Rubén Zamora, the closing of El Periódico, and the exile of several journalists has had a very negative impact on the freedom of the press in Guatemala, many people are afraid to express themselves or resort to self-censorship. How can freedom of expression be reestablished in Guatemala?

Because the harassment of freedom of the press and freedom of expression will definitely end. That is to say, the case of José Rubén Zamora has been handled intentionally, on the one hand, to punish a journalist who has been fighting for decades to expose the corruption of state institutions. And on the other hand, it has been a warning to the press, to journalists, to anyone who opposes the designs of this group, of the possible consequences. But we must remember that this comes from the Executive, when the Executive changes, when the Government of the Republic is not the heart of this corrupt pact, then the conditions will change because the Public Ministry will not be required to persecute journalists or judges or prosecutors for doing their job and fulfilling their functions.

The power of the elites

Should you win the Presidency of the Republic, you would have to govern with a parliamentary minority. Some critics, who are not necessarily from the extreme right, say: -Semilla has good intentions, but has no government experience. One thing is to propose, another thing is to govern and make profound changes in these adverse conditions.

It is clear that we are going to have a Congress in which we do not have a majority, but there are two measures that we have clearly identified. Firstly, our government plan has an implementation plan A and an implementation plan B. Implementation plan A is where you have a government with a reasonably cooperative congress, a functional congress. Plan B, is when you have a Congress that is completely co-opted by corruption and the only thing it seeks to do is to obstruct and oppose the government's management. We are not going to let ourselves be kidnapped by the conditions in the Congress of the Republic and we are clear that we are going to advance in a very clear and dynamic way in everything we can, from the Executive body. It will limit the possibilities of institutionalization, it will limit the scope of the reforms. For example, we would like a transparency law to favor economic competition, but we will not be able to implement it. We would like a new investment law to be able to start regulating the whole framework, but we will not be able to implement it. We would like an environmental regulation that we will not be able to implement, but we have the tools of the Executive to be able to achieve measures that are established, at least as an example of what could be achieved. 

The second part is when this central axis of corruption is removed, the whole group of parties and congressmen who are currently in the Congress of the Republic, who have been elected to the Congress of the Republic, will start to fragment because there will be people who will be of a hardcore, black nucleus, who will continue to be clearly positioned around this attempt to attack a government that comes to fight against corruption and there will be other people, players, parties, people who will be gray and who will distance themselves from this action. So that is going to change the formula. But the third element is that what we are going to do very clearly is to build bridges and make alliances with the different sectors of society and seek in these alliances the political strength required to complement this situation in the Congress of the Republic.

The last government with a social democratic, progressive orientation, which tried to make profound changes in Guatemala, clashed with the resistance of the economic elite. It was unable to make a real fiscal reform. What could allow it to make these changes today? And on the other hand, for economic changes to have an impact on the majority of the population.

We are very clear that the goal of the entire government administration is to generate these changes for the population. The fight against corruption is the necessary condition to make institutions work and development reach those places. But we are in a process of dialogue with private actors who are today very concerned about the stagnation and political degradation of the country, which becomes an obstacle for any actor, not only for the social actors who suffer the effect of the lack of development because the money for development is stolen but also for the economic actors who do not have the possibility of moving forward. 

We know that there are uncooperative actors, but we know that there are actors with whom we are having very clear dialogues around the common interest of making this country function as a State that works effectively to achieve the common good. 

In case of winning the presidency, what would be your policy, your projection towards Central America, and in particular towards Daniel Ortega's regime in Nicaragua? 

We have been open critics of the process of authoritarianism that we have seen in Nicaragua and the fact that it has become a dictatorship. 

For us, Central America continues to be a clear objective in terms of moving towards integration, but we understand that there are not necessarily ideal conditions at the moment and what we will do is contribute to working on a design of the structures by which this integration is implemented, of all the institutional aspects, of commissions, secretariats, that we have to reform and in the meantime, we hope that the Central American governments are all located within a democratic framework in order to be able to move more firmly towards integration. 

In short, what is at stake in these elections for Guatemala? 

The future or the past. Guatemala can continue to be anchored in a muddled past to which this corrupt co-optation of the State has subjected us, or it can choose to start advancing towards democracy with social justice, with full respect for the human rights of all, with full freedom for all its citizens.

Are you confident that this Electoral Tribunal will be able to arbitrate this second round?

We will see the result we get from this process of comparison if they come out with a recovery of confidence on the part of the citizens and the political parties, or if they come out completely undermined.

What is the mood in Guatemala today, is the citizenry resigned to the fact that this possibility can be derailed or are there forces willing to mobilize to achieve this change?

For the first time in a long time, there is enthusiasm, illusion, and hope in the citizenry. That is what mobilized the vote and what has been mobilized as a result of the vote. So there is a clear determination, as many of the memes and questions that one sees in the networks say. We are not going to let the elections be stolen and there is a strong feeling that these elections, this result of the first round, must be defended.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff.

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Carlos F. Chamorro

Carlos F. Chamorro

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado en Costa Rica. Fundador y director de Confidencial y Esta Semana. Miembro del Consejo Rector de la Fundación Gabo. Ha sido Knight Fellow en la Universidad de Stanford (1997-1998) y profesor visitante en la Maestría de Periodismo de la Universidad de Berkeley, California (1998-1999). En mayo 2009, obtuvo el Premio a la Libertad de Expresión en Iberoamérica, de Casa América Cataluña (España). En octubre de 2010 recibió el Premio Maria Moors Cabot de la Escuela de Periodismo de la Universidad de Columbia en Nueva York. En 2021 obtuvo el Premio Ortega y Gasset por su trayectoria periodística.

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