Reflections on the Semilla Party’s Presidential Victory in Guatemala and the Challenges Ahead

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Author: Vicki Gass

The vote counting from Guatemala’s runoff election between the Semilla Party and the UNE
Party resounded from the three election tables in the classroom where I was an electoral
observer with a mission funded by Global Exchange. “Semilla, Semilla, Semilla, UNE, Semilla,
Semilla, Semilla, nulo (null), Semilla, Semilla, Semilla.” On August 20, 2023, the Semilla Party
headed by Bernardo Arévalo and Karin Herrera, won by a landslide, winning 17 of the 22
departments. This victory has been internationally recognized.

Semilla’s victory was not unexpected. In the meetings I had prior to election day with young,
independent journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders, and community leaders, they all
predicted, and their views were backed by polls, that the Semilla Party would win. The question
was by how big a margin. This mattered because if the margin was small, UNE candidate
Sandra Torres and the pacto de corruptos would contest the results as they have since the
Semilla Party’s surprising upset in the first elections on June 25. The day after the elections,
anti-corruption foes in the government have raided the offices of the Supreme Electoral
Tribunal (TSE in Spanish) and the Semilla Party offices, used the judicial system to threaten legal
action against TSE and contract workers, and challenged the legal status of the Semilla Party.
With the overwhelming victory on August 20, such lawfare would be harder to justify.

The reality is, however, Guatemala’s coopted judicial system doesn’t need much justification to
continue its criminalization of anti-corruption crusaders and human rights defenders. Despite
Semilla’s winning over 60 percent of the vote and the international recognition of Bernardo
Arévalo as president-elect, the lawfare against those fighting for change continues.

Even the groups I met with and Candidate Arévalo during a private luncheon on the Saturday
before the elections, acknowledged that while winning was likely, the Semilla Party would face
serious legal challenges and would need all the international support to make it to inauguration
day in January and afterwards when in office to implement social and development projects.

On Monday, two different departments of the TSE both certified the Semilla’s triumph in the
runoff elections and temporarily suspended Semilla’s legal status. Losing UNE presidential
candidate, Sandra Torres, has yet to concede. Meanwhile, corrupt judges are shelving
corruption cases and former president Otto Pérez Molina, convicted of massive corruption, was
released from prison with orders to pay a fine. Also on Monday, the National Civilian Police on
orders of the Attorney General raided the homes of anti-corruption lawyers Juan Francisco
Sandoval (exiled), Claudia González and Siomara Sosa (exiled). They harassed Sandoval’s elderly
parents and arrested Claudia for “abuse of power” even though she has never held a public
office in which to abuse her power. She is, however the lawyer for anti-corruption champions
and human rights defenders. The judge overseeing her case claimed he was too busy to see her
and ordered her to preventative prison and placed in solitary confinement. He will not review
her case until September 6, if she is lucky.

Why this matters. Bernardo Arévalo is a decent man. He was vice minister of Foreign Affairs
and Guatemalan Ambassador to Spain, a founder of Semilla and a deputy in the legislature and
speaks five languages. He is the son of former president Juan José Arévalo, the first
democratically elected president in 1944, and credited with enacting social reform policies such
as raising the minimum wage, literacy programs and labor rights. Karin Herrera, Bernardo
Arevalo’s running mate, is a biologist, sociologist, and professor. They ran on a campaign to end
corruption and defend human rights.

Secondly, the support for Semilla in the June 25 elections and the runoff was spontaneous and
organic. In focus groups last December throughout the country, LAWG partner Prensa
Comunitaria determined that many of the characteristics that the voters wanted in office –
honesty, integrity, education, and sense of civic duty – are ones Bernardo Arévalo has. In the
closing ceremony for his ceremony in the Central Square in Guatemala City, thousands of
people attended. The participants were multi-generational – elderly, students, children,
parents, youth – and the majority waved the Guatemalan flag and some the Semilla Party flag
or seedlings. Missing were the political banners with sectoral demands typically seen public
demonstrations in Central America.

Politically, this election is also important for Guatemala and the region. Before the state
institutions were co-opted, Guatemala was the model country for anti-corruption work that
targeted corrupt public and private actors. It is precisely because of this success that corrupt
actors began to infiltrate state institutions and stop the investigations and convictions so they
could continue robbing the public coffers with impunity. If the U.S. government really wants to
address poverty, inequality, lack of education, weak development, and climate change to help
address why people leave, supporting the rights-based and anti-corruption policies of
President-elect Bernardo Arévalo and the Semilla Party is absolutely necessary.

The Semilla victory represents a break from the dangerous authoritarian trend in Nicaragua and
El Salvador and offers hope to rights-based political parties and their base in El Salvador as they
run against a popular but authoritarian president. Democracy, the rule of law and freedom of
speech must be defended in the region.

For these reasons, LAWG will continue to fight for this by educating our elected officials. We
will pressure them to keep international attention on Guatemala so the people’s choice for
president can be inaugurated in January 2024. This includes urging the electoral observation
missions from the European Union and the Organization of American States to stay until
January. We will continue to denounce human rights violations as we did during the raids and
the illegal arrest of Claudia González, keeping visible the on-going human rights violations
taking place in Guatemala. Finally, we will urge the Biden administration to explore stronger
individual sanctions on corrupt Guatemalan actors such as those levied by the Global Magnitsky
Act and explore trade restrictions on the specific sectors behind the corrupt regime. Join me
and the LAWG team in this important fight.