Who Are The Main Players In The 2019 Guatemala Election?

The upcoming Guatemala election this weekend is just about the hardest one to call in the country’s history. Nestor Quixtan takes a look at some of the candidates. 

The 2019 Guatemala election has been as much about those who are not running as those who are.

Early favorites were former Chief Prosecutor Thelma Aldana and Zury Ríos, daughter of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt.

Constitutional restrictions deemed Ríos ineligible last month because close relatives of former coup leaders cannot serve as president. The Electoral Tribunal ruled out Aldana because of pending indictments promoted by the new Chief Prosecutor.

Other ineligible candidates are Edwin Escobar, a former mayor, and businessman Mauricio Radford.

These ineligibilities of these candidates open the door to the remaining bunch.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary is Roberto Arzú, son of ex-President Álvaro Arzú, who died in April 2018.

Roberto Arzú has a checkered history. Most Guatemalans remember him for his tenure at the helm of the Comunicaciones football club. During this time, Comunicaciones won several Guatemalan league titles.

But Arzú doesn’t have much experience in the way of public administration. He runs some of the family businesses, although people call his business acumen into question.

Many also equate Arzú to Donald Trump as a divisive figure, counting on only a handful of sympathizers.

Yet, he stands as the potential runner-up in the first leg of the election set to take pace this weekend on June 16th.

The consensus front runner, former First Lady Sandra Torres, has kept a low profile throughout her campaign.

While she’s been active making campaign stops all over Guatemala, Torres has for the most part stayed out of the public eye, maybe out of fear of scrutiny.

This is Torres’ third attempt at running. He first attempt was in 2011 when constitutional restrictions kept her from running. As the incumbent First Lady in 2011, the Guatemalan constitution forbade her from running for public office.

Despite her public divorce from then-President Álvaro Colom, the courts still deemed her ineligible.

Torres then ran in 2015, free of constitutional restrictions, only to be the runner-up to sitting President Jimmy Morales. She was the beneficiary of Manuel Baldizon’s collapse in the weeks leading up to the 2015 election.

Fast forward to 2019, and it appears Torres may well become Guatemala’s first female president.

But her candidacy doesn’t come without question. Torres faces scrutiny over her party’s handling of social programs during the Colom administration. While there are no indictments against her so far, some of her closest collaborators find themselves targeted by investigators.

With a few days left before the election, predicting the winner is almost impossible.

No reliable opinion polls exist and the major news outlets in Guatemala have little to no credibility. Many of the polls on social media have been disproven as manufactured propaganda intending to favor specific candidates.

The question begs: can any of the other candidates put a dent into the presidential hopes of Roberto Arzú or Sandra Torres?

Their chances are slim. Barring a miraculous upset, it seems like none of the other candidates can pull off a victory. In fact, virtually all the candidates are hoping to squeak into the runoff leg against Torres. They want to square off against her in the runoff leg and defeat her like Jimmy Morales did.

Sandra Torres is hoping to put the election to bed in the first leg, though.

That seems unlikely as she would need a 50% + 1 majority. Given the number of candidates running, that would be almost impossible to achieve.

So who’ll get into the runoff?

Well, all bets are off. This could well be Guatemala’s hardest election to call.

Anything can happen at this point.

But just as this election is too hard to call, it’s for sure one of the most important in Guatemala’s history.

The country is coming of the failed presidency of Jimmy Morales. His approval ratings only surpass those of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro’s. The Guatemalan economy has fizzled during his tenure.

To make matters worse, the United States and Mexico’s recent trade deal points the finger straight at Guatemala because Mexico has essentially washed its hands of the illegal immigration issue and placed the blame on Guatemala alone. This will only compound Guatemala’s international credibility for Morales’ successor.

So whoever emerges victorious will inherit a country with no rule of law, especially since Morales kicked out the UN anticorruption commission CICIG last year.

Whoever takes over will not only need to win over the opposition but will have to tackle some of the most complex social and economic issues in Guatemala’s history.

While Torres would make history as Guatemala’s first female president, she will have to contend with a few skeletons in her closet from the Colom administration. Roberto Arzú will have to contend with some of his father’s skeletons.

One thing is certain, if they both make it into the second round, Guatemalan voters will have to choose between a rock and a hard place.

If some other candidate pulls off an upset and makes it into the runoff leg against either Arzú or Torres, they will have a much easier path into the National Palace.

The odds of such an upset coming rest with Dr Alejandro Giammattei, or perhaps former UN Under-Secretary Edmond Mulet.

The rest of the field, while boasting some qualified candidates, don’t have large political parties backing them.        

But then they could be laying the groundwork for a 2023 bid, as has been the custom throughout Guatemala’s democratic history.

There is one thing that all current candidates must keep in mind: Jimmy Morales’ ascension and later free-fall is a cautionary tale.

Don’t over-promise because the Guatemalan people will eventually hold your feet to the fire.

Nestor Quixtan is a Canadian/Guatemalan economist, linguist, and writer. He lives in Guatemala City.