Guatemala’s elections: Five things to know

Presidential candidates’ proposals to address migration range from farmer support to US military bases

It''s unlikely that one presidential candidate will get enough votes to outright win Sunday's election [File: Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters]

Guatemala City – When Guatemalans cast their ballots in Sunday’s general election, thousands of their compatriots will continue their harrowing journey as migrants and asylum seekers heading up through Mexico and across the US border.

A crowded field is vying for the presidency following a chaotic campaign period. Voters will also elect all 160 representatives to the unicameral congress and hundreds of local officials.

The voting centers are expected to open at 7:00am (13:00 GMT) and close at 6:00pm local time (12:00 GMT, Monday)

Here are five things to know:

1. Will there be an outright winner of the presidential election?

If one of the 19 presidential candidates obtains 50 percent of the votes, they will become president-elect, but this is highly unlikely. The leading pair after Sunday will face off in an August 11 runoff election, and the winner will take office on January 14. 


Sandra Torres leads the crowded field. A businesswoman and former first lady, the National Unity of Hope (UNE) party centrist candidate faces allegations of illegal campaign financing in the 2015 election, but her candidacy confers her immunity from prosecution.

Alejandro Giammattei has been polling in second place. The right-wing Vamos candidate and former prisons director spent 10 months in pre-trial detention after being accused of participating in a 2006 massacre of inmates. He was acquitted in 2011.

A staff member of Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) sets up voting equipment ahead of Sunday’s presidential election in Guatemala City [Saul Martinez/Reuters]

Roberto Arzu is not far behind. The far right PAN-Podemos candidate is the son of former president Alvaro Arzu and brother of the current president of the congress.

Humanist party candidate Edmond Mulet and Movement for the Liberation of the Peoples (MLP) candidate Thelma Cabrera round out the top five.

2. Candidates’ plans to address migration vary wildly

Thousands of Guatemalan families are fleeing north every month. The leading presidential candidates’ proposals to address migration range from farmer support to US military bases. 


The Torres campaign is focused on addressing the driving forces of migration with public investment in infrastructure, health, education, and small-scale agriculture in rural areas, the source of much of the current exodus.

Giammattei plans to create an “economic wall” of jobs and opportunities to halt migration, he told EFE in an interview last week, emphasising the need for greater foreign investment.

Arzu hopes for US military bases along the Guatemala-Mexico border and told EFE he would invite the US and Israel to co-manage customs, immigration, ports and airports.

3. The lead-up to the election has been mayhem

Over the past three months, several candidates have been barred from running. Others have been arrested. Some have been killed. Officials with key roles in elections have reported threats and pressure and two are now taking leaves of absence. 


“I think what we all hope for is for these elections to take place in non-violent conditions,” Oswaldo Samayoa, a lawyer and university professor, told Al Jazeera.

Five presidential candidates were barred from running well into the campaign period, following heated legal battles. Two were frontrunners, including Semilla party presidential candidate Thelma Aldana, a former attorney general disqualified on allegations of corruption, which she denies.

A remaining option – voting for no one – has generated confusion. For the first time in Guatemala, spoiled ballots are binding protest votes. If 50 percent of votes in any race are null, that election must be repeated.

“The option was not sufficiently disseminated at the national level for people to cast an informed vote,” Stephanie Lopez, a political analyst from the Central American Institute of Political Studies, told Al Jazeera.

4. There is an ongoing political crisis tied to corruption

Corruption has taken tens of millions of dollars out of the public coffers that could have otherwise contributed to addressing climate change, poverty, and other drivers of migration. 


A UN-backed anti-impunity commission, CICIG, has been working with prosecutors to take down high-level networks and even a sitting president. But corruption has deep roots, and the efforts sparked a powerful backlash after it began investigating current president Jimmy Morales.

Morales did not renew CICIG’s mandate, which ends in September. Guatemala’s highest court struck down Morales’ subsequent ban of the head commissioner, but the government began openly defying rulings, sparking an ongoing political crisis.

Giammattei and Arzu firmly oppose CICIG. Cabrera fully supports it. Mulet wants a “reformed CICIG”. Torres has avoided taking a clear stance one way or the other. Either way, the next president will not have the power to bring CICIG back. Congress would need to pass a new agreement.

5. The US and Guatemala are making migration deals

The US is cracking down on migration and the Guatemalan government appears to be on board despite the deaths of five Guatemalan children in US custody in just over six months. 


“The United States is probably looking at this election solely through the eyes of whether the person elected will be able to make progress on reducing the number of Guatemalans leaving the country,” Mike Allison, a political science professor at the University of Scranton, told Al Jazeera.

Last month, the Guatemalan government signed a deal with the US Department of Homeland Security for the latter to deploy agents and investigators to Guatemala’s border with Mexico.

This week, US State Department officials were in Guatemala to negotiate a bilateral “safe third country” agreement, the Voice of America (VOA) radio network reported. The deal would restrict Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers to requesting asylum in Guatemala.

The US is erroneously focusing purely on deterrence and enforcement instead of “providing the political and economic support needed to address the root causes of insecurity and migration”, Allison said.

Source: Al Jazeera