Outgoing Guatemalan president assures ‘transparent transition’ to Arevalo

President-elect Bernardo Arevalo campaigned on an anti-corruption platform but has faced opposition from the government.

A close-up of Bernardo Arevalo, a man with glasses, a suit and a red tie.
President-elect Bernardo Arevalo responds to the suspension of his political party in a press conference on August 28 [Cristina Chiquin/Reuters]

The outgoing president of Guatemala has announced he will oversee an “orderly and transparent transition” of power to Bernardo Arevalo, winner of the 2023 presidential race.

But the statement from President Alejandro Giammattei comes amid criticism that members of his government are attempting to destabilise Arevalo’s political party and call into question his victory.

On Tuesday, Giammattei posted a video on social media addressing the election results and promising to meet Arevalo on September 4, ahead of the president-elect’s swearing-in ceremony in January.

“The doors are now open towards an orderly, transparent and, above all, efficient government transition,” Giammettei said.

But the video comes less than a day after Guatemala’s electoral registry suspended Arevalo’s party, the Movimiento Semilla or the Seed Movement — the latest twist in an election marred by controversy.

That suspension, which arrived within hours of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal certifying the election results, provoked widespread outrage. Arevalo himself dismissed the suspension as illegal.

“No one can impede me from taking office on January 14,” Arevalo said at a press conference on Monday.

By Tuesday, Seed Movement lawyer Juan Gerardo Guerrero told reporters the party had filed an appeal, petitioning the country’s election court to overturn the suspension.

The Seed Movement, a progressive party, was formed in 2017 on a platform of combatting corruption, a systemic issue in Guatemala.

In June’s general elections, the party outperformed expectations by leaning into the anti-corruption themes. The Seed Movement picked up 23 seats in Congress and saw its presidential candidate, Arevalo, advance to a run-off election.

Arevalo, once a dark-horse candidate, quickly became the frontrunner and ultimately won the run-off in a landslide, with approximately 61 percent of the vote.

But the weeks leading to the final vote were tinged with questions of election interference.

Guatemala’s Constitutional Court briefly suspended the results of the first round of voting, after rival political parties requested a review.

When that procedure upheld the initial results, the Attorney General’s Office moved to suspend the Seed Movement in July, accusing the party of fraudulently submitting 5,000 signatures in its party registration.

The Constitutional Court issued a temporary injunction against the suspension that same month, but the investigation into the party’s signatures has since continued.

The Seed Movement has also seen its party offices raided by police, as has the Supreme Election Tribunal.

Critics have denounced these moves as evidence of “lawfare”, where government institutions like the legal system are weaponised to suppress political opposition.

The Organization of American States (OAS) monitored the election and has called the Seed Movement’s suspension unjustified.

“In this regard an abusive interpretation of the law seeks to suspend its rights after the election in which the political party of the president-elect received broad support,” Luis Almagro, general secretariat of the OAS, said in a social media post on Tuesday.

The United States, likewise, said it was “concerned” by the recent developments in Guatemala.

“Such anti-democratic behavior, including efforts by the Public Ministry and other actors to suspend the President-elect’s political party and intimidate election authorities, undercuts the clear will of the Guatemalan people,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a press release on Tuesday.

Monday’s suspension could add to the instability facing Arevalo’s government and hinder other elected representatives from the Seed Movement from joining government commissions.

Arevalo also faces an ongoing challenge from his rival, conservative Sandra Torres, who has filed a complaint alleging voter fraud in the August 20 run-off.

Tiziano Breda, a Central America expert at Italy’s Istituto Affari Internazionali, told The Associated Press that the country’s political establishment has fought hard to roll back the results of the election.

“Even if they don’t manage to, this will have an implication of hindering a transition to Arevalo’s presidency,” he added.

Critics have long accused the Guatemalan government of using the legal system to stifle dissent and consolidate power. Journalists, judges and anti-corruption lawyers have all faced prosecution for what many believe to be false charges, designed to eliminate threats to the status quo.

The latest case came on Monday, with the arrest of Claudia Gonzalez, a former employee of the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

In recent years, more than 30 legal professionals involved in anti-corruption efforts have fled the country for fear of arrest.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies