In the face of a hostile conservative elite, radical democratization is Guatemalan president-elect Bernardo Arévalo’s best hope to both tackle corruption and revive the country’s “democratic spring.”

Guatemalan president-elect Bernardo Arévalo, of the Semilla party, speaks during a press conference in Guatemala City on September 12, 2023. (Johan Ordonez / AFP via Getty Images)

Azucena Morán is a research associate at the Research Institute for Sustainability–Helmholtz Centre Potsdam, focusing on Central American politics and participatory and deliberative democracy. She is a member of Participedia’s editorial board and on the democratic innovations steering committee of the European Consortium for Political Research.

At a time when all seemed lost, Guatemalans placed a social democrat with a clean record in the runoff for president. On August 20, 2023, Bernardo Arévalo went from being a major polling blind spot to the country’s new president-elect. He has now become the latest target of a slow coup d’état — one that began when the leading antiestablishment candidate, Maya Mam leader and indigenous rights defender Thelma Cabrera, was barred from the race.

Arévalo is a rare figure in Guatemalan politics. A composed intellectual and the son of a revolutionary head of state, his upcoming presidency is one of the biggest threats to the status quo since the UN-backed Commission Against Impunity was forced out of the country in 2019.

If Arévalo and his Semilla party can withstand political persecution and succeed in taking office, Arévalo will take over an autocracy whose last democratic bastion was the ballot that elected him. He has promised to end the era of corruption. The Semilla party has called his election “the return of spring,” a reference to the “democratic spring” inaugurated by Arévalo’s father, Juan José Arévalo, in 1945, and then developed by Jacobo Árbenz and indigenous and peasant movements until the CIA-led coup d’état in 1954. But laying the groundwork for democracy to flourish will not be an easy feat.

Autocratic Breakdown

Unlike other regional autocracies, the Guatemalan government is not in the hands of a populist dictator. Instead, it is anchored in an oligarchic network of private interests that maintain power through corruption, narco-politics, and the historical oppression of indigenous communities. Autocracy, in other words, doesn’t mean the continuity of the current administration of Alejandro Giammattei or his nebulous party but that of a hydra-like establishment, where removing one corrupt actor only reveals another.

Arévalo’s Semilla party managed to create a united front against this form of rule by rallying behind an anti-corruption agenda and the restoration of the country’s judiciary — a system broken by a lack of independence under the control of powerful influence groups, which has resulted in the persecution and criminalization of journalists, activists, prosecutors, lawyers, and judges, forced to flee the country or become prisoners of conscience. Exceptionally diverse constituencies stood behind Arévalo’s pro-democracy and anti-corruption message. The campaign found significant support from indigenous authorities, peasant and indigenous movements, progressive civil society organizations, the youth, the international community, and, surprisingly, even some of the country’s predatory elites.

Campaigning under a broad banner like anti-corruption is not an uncommon feature of politics in the face of autocracy, especially among centrist parties in the region. Those parties have historically been strategic mediators between actors across the political spectrum, ultimately stabilizing and strengthening the party system by creating a “habitable and competitive political space. In the Guatemalan case, the dissatisfied majority looked to Arévalo’s candidacy as a way to recover the country’s democratic systems. Indeed, the president-elect went from receiving 11.77 percent of the votes in the first electoral round to 58 percent in the runoff against establishment candidate Sandra Torres.

But to democratize the country, Semilla’s newly sprouted seedling will not only need collective support to displace the corrupt actors and narco-political elites currently running the Guatemalan government. It will also have to gain political legitimacy itself. This will require the president-elect to shift strategies from providing a political middle ground against the corrupt establishment to laying the foundation for his agenda.

A Democratic Transition

Since the election, Semilla has reiterated its commitment to welfare economics and its anti-corruption agenda. It has either maintained conservative stands or remained notably quiet on indigenous deliberative autonomy and territorial rights, reproductive and LGBTQ rights, and green extractivism. Arévalo often speaks not about a revolution but a transformation that is so profound that the population denies the possibility of returning to the status quo. He acknowledges the need to find political legitimacy among the population and set the ground for a democratic transition. But how can a just and legitimate consensus be reached that ensures that the demands of indigenous communities are not once again overshadowed to pursue a consensus with the oligarchy?

The only way to do this without further weakening the party system and reinforcing the marked socioeconomic inequalities and racial hierarchies in the country will be to engage in an open, just, and repoliticized deliberation on the country’s future — not making compromises with loud, powerful voices or fabricating consensus among the usual suspects but democratically determining the political agenda with a clear understanding of the systemic drivers of autocratization in Guatemala. To collectively draft and implement Arévalo’s mandate will require not only a survey of needs and desires but also a clear political commitment to implement the peoples’ policy recommendations and the reform of the country’s participatory system. In addition, the recognition of autonomous forms of governance will guarantee that the various historical demands of indigenous communities aren’t displaced for the sake of an apolitical middle ground.

A decentralized participatory budgeting system and rotating accountability bodies, in parallel to the binding mechanisms of collective governance in the country, would empower different communities to align budgets with their territorial needs. Guatemala’s autonomous participatory bodies could be spaces to deliberate specific public policies, following the model of Brazil’s National Public Policy Conferences but recognizing and addressing the failures of the existing institutionalized system of development councils. These practices, already known in other Latin American territories, could expand public services while granting unprecedented deliberative and territorial autonomy. A well-grounded deliberative and plurinational constituent assembly might ultimately be the only way of securing Guatemala’s democratic system after Arévalo’s term is over.

What lies ahead for the country is highly uncertain. Years of judicial erosion, violent repression of indigenous territories, immiseration policies, increased media censorship, and massive misinformation campaigns are not only a means for electoral manipulation but for autocracy to persist despite democratic elections. Arévalo’s task will be to lay the foundation for actual democratization, a task that extends beyond reactivating anti-corruption efforts and recovering the judiciary.

The election and postelection have been plagued by failed attempts to force Arévalo out of the race, political persecution (Arévalo’s Semilla party was temporarily suspended), the increased criminalization of anti-corruption actors, and prosecutor raids of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. His victory and perseverance in spite of these attacks has sparked an unusual phenomenon in Central American politics: hope.

Harnessing the current heightened levels of political engagement and democratic euphoria could help make up for Semilla’s minority in Congress. It could also resolve some of the democratic deficits connected to Guatemala’s inconsistent party system and feeble tradition of intraparty loyalty. By strengthening diverse political causes among the citizenry, Arévalo has the opportunity to bring politics back to the country’s deliberative bodies. Engaging citizens at the local level in agenda-setting, policy implementation, and constitution-making could further Guatemala’s quest for democratization.

It’ll be a difficult term, but it looks like Semilla is up to the task.

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