GUATEMALA CITY – Guatemala sank deeper into political turmoil Thursday as an effort by prosecutors to discredit a progressive presidential candidate prompted his conservative opponent to suspend her campaign, citing a playing field that was no longer even.
The government's actions against candidate Bernardo Arévalo — first suspending his Seed Movement party, then raiding the country's election tribunal offices after it certified election results — sparked other objections as well, from within and outside Guatemala. U.S. officials called them a threat to the country’s democracy.
By Thursday afternoon, those actions appeared to have backfired.
The Constitutional Court, which is Guatemala's highest tribunal, granted a preliminary injunction to the Seed Movement, blocking its suspension. Meanwhile, candidates left and right warned the government to let the voters prevail.
It was an outcome President Alejandro Giammattei likely did not expect when his administration decided to intervene in the June 25 election, which ended with Arévalo and conservative candidate Sandra Torres moving on to an Aug. 20 presidential runoff.
Arévalo dismissed the government's actions as illegal and said he would file complaints against the lower court judge, attorney general and special prosecutor for trying to keep him out of the race.
“What they are trying to do is simply sow doubt about our honesty,” he said at a news conference Thursday, adding that the raid and party’s suspension had a “clear political purpose.”
The Supreme Electoral Tribunal issued an angry statement declaring it would safeguard Guatemala’s democracy in the face of “any attempt to interfere with the electoral process.”
Torres, whose UNE party has been a key force in allowing Giammattei to advance his legislative agenda, said she was halting her campaign activities to protest the government's actions. It was likely she realized Giammattei’s missteps could sink her own candidacy.
“We want to demonstrate our solidarity with the voters of the Seed party and also with those who came out to vote,” she said. “As a candidate, I want to compete under equal conditions.”
She called on the president to show his face.
Giammattei’s office issued a statement saying it respects the separation of powers and would not be involved in any judicial processes. Giammattei is prohibited by Guatemalan law from seeking reelection.
Arévalo was a surprise among the 22 candidates in the June 25 first-round election, getting 11.7% of the votes. In the days before the ballot, he had polled below 3% and was not among the top six or seven candidates, all of whom were considered to be on the conservative end of the political spectrum. Torres led the field with 15.8%. No candidate came close to exceeding the 50% threshold necessary to win outright, necessitating the August runoff.
A former diplomat and academic, Arévalo has framed himself as the candidate who would bring change to the country, while portraying Torres as someone who would likely maintain the status quo.
Arévalo also promised to bring back prosecutors and judges who were critical to the nation's fight against corruption but were forced out of the country under Giammattei’s administration.
As the wait dragged on for certification of the election, anxiety grew that the government was looking for a way to change the results. First, several losing parties waged a legal challenge, leading the Constitutional Court to suspend the certification and order a review of hundreds of challenged polling place tallies. The review concluded with no change in the results.
Then late Wednesday, anti-corruption prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche announced the Seed Movement's suspension, an action that appeared to violate Guatemala's election laws, which prohibit suspending parties during an ongoing election. Curruchiche alleged the party violated the law while gathering the signatures it needed to form.
The day began Thursday with prosecutors raiding the offices of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal just hours after it certified the election results. The Attorney General’s Office said Thursday that the purpose of the raid was to seize evidence from the office responsible for voter rolls and party registration. A raid had also been expected to take place at the Seed Movement’s party headquarters Thursday but that appeared unlikely after the high court's injunction.
The U.S. State Department previouslyr accused Curruchiche and his boss, Attorney General Consuelo Porras, of obstructing corruption investigations in Guatemala, and put them both on its list of undemocratic actors.
Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Thursday that the U.S. government was “deeply concerned” by the actions of the Attorney General’s Office, which he said threatened the legitimacy of the electoral process. “The will of the Guatemalan people, as expressed through the June 25 elections results, must be respected,” he said.
A United Nations spokesperson said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was watching developments in Guatemala with concern and urged all those involved to act responsibly and impartially.
Katya Salazar, executive director of the Due Process Foundation, a Washington-based nongovernmental group, said events playing out in Guatemala were the result of real fear among those in power that an Arévalo victory could threaten the impunity they enjoy.
That impunity comes from co-optation of the justice system, by appointing judges and an attorney general they trusted and chasing those in the justice system who had investigated corruption out of the country, she said.
“If you don’t control the justice system, there is always going to be the concern that they open an investigation against you,” she said.
On Thursday afternoon, several hundred people gathered outside the Attorney General’s Office to protest attempts to suspend the Seed Movement.
Rosmarie Móvil, a 76-year-old vendor, said she came because she was tired of the government trampling the people’s will.
“What we want to say more than anything is no to corruption, enough already,” she said. “It makes you embarrassed to be Guatemalan because they steal from us, there’s no justice, there’s no health (care) and on top of it they want to take the democracy. Let there be spring now.”
Associated Press writers Christopher Sherman in Mexico City and Edith M. Lederer in New York and AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.