Just days after former President Otto Pérez Molina resigned and was subsequently sent to prison, Guatemalans were faced with the next chapter in an ongoing political saga: the opportunity to elect a new leader.
When polls closed on September 6, votes had been cast not only for the new president and vice president — who will take office in January 2016 — but also for members of congress and the Central American Parliament, as well as for municipal leaders throughout the country.
FCN candidate Jimmy Morales — a comedian with no political experience, but who has marketed himself as a “new option” — led the presidential race alongside Manuel Baldizón (LIDER) and Sandra Torres (UNE). However, since no candidate secured the required 50% of the vote needed to win, a runoff election will take place in October between the two top candidates. [Read more about the leading candidates here].
Leading up to September 6, hundreds had called for the postponement of elections — a demand that was ultimately rejected by Guatemala’s election authority, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). In this context, the day brought up mixed feelings about what constitutes meaningful engagement in “democracy.” Calls for participation in the election process were lauded by the OAS, and on social media, the US Embassy encouraged Guatemalans to vote as a “step toward ending corruption.” At the same time, protesters continued to demand electoral reforms and express concerns that choosing from a pool of equally corrupt candidates will only prolong politics as usual in Guatemala. Banners hung across the National Palace in Guatemala City deemed the elections “illegitimate.”
The overall mood remained peaceful and calm as some 2,796 voting centers opened across the country, though participation varied widely from site to site. As the day progressed, however, several illegalities were reported; Attorney General Thelma Aldana says she received at least 900 complaints that she will follow up with.
In Totonicapán, members from political parties were seen rewarding voters with food and drinks. Residents also reported that the TSE call center was not functioning properly and that there was confusion regarding voting locations. And one of this year’s candidates running for congress, Carlos Bezares, explained that he was unable to vote because someone had falsified his ID and had already voted in his name.
Many of the complaints were related to interference from political parties, a phenomenon that occurs frequently in Guatemala. Instances of parties transporting people to voting centers and buying votes were again reported widely this year throughout the country, with a focus on violations committed by the UNE, PP and LIDER parties.
In San Jose del Golfo, two community members and leaders in the La Puya environmental movement were arrested when they tried to report that members of the LIDER party were illegally transporting people from other municipalities to the polls. Police officials arrested Ana Sandoval, who reports that she was forced to delete video and photographic evidence of the illegalities she witnessed, but was ultimately released. Officials also arrested community and land rights leader Milton Carrera, and are charging him with “electoral disturbance” – an act community members are calling a clear case of criminalization.
Many Guatemalans have vowed that social movements focused on rooting out corruption will continue regardless of the outcome of the elections. Whoever wins on October 25 will face a citizenry that — with months of increasingly bold protests behind it — is no longer afraid to demand that politicians be held accountable to the public.