Guatemala election: What campaign chaos has to do with migration north

Why We Wrote This

When Americans think of Guatemala these days, it’s because of migration. Guatemala’s presidential campaign season, on the other hand, highlighted corruption. But the two issues are intricately linked.

Saul Martinez/Reuters
A woman reads a newspaper as she stands in a queue outside a polling station during the first round of the presidential election in Guatemala City June 16.

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Taxi driver Nery Vásquez begrudgingly cast a ballot on Sunday for the person he decided was least corrupt on the lengthy list of candidates. “We have to pick somebody [other than Sandra Torres], so that there’s competition,” he said, adding that none of the candidates excited him.

If Guatemala’s 2015 presidential election was defined by an overwhelming sense of hope and possibility, this year’s vote underscores the persistence of Guatemala’s struggles with corruption and organized crime. Five candidates in a field of more than 20 – including those polling in first and second place – were disqualified ahead of Sunday’s vote.

Guatemala is increasingly in the global spotlight, with tens of thousands of Central Americans leaving the country due to poverty, violence, and lack of opportunity, and being stopped at the U.S. border this year.

Sunday’s election highlights the vast challenges its next president will face – including the lack of confidence in government leadership, which helps propel many people north.

After voting, Mr. Vásquez called his daughter in South Carolina. She was born in the United States, but grew up in Guatemala. She and her father talked about the need for the economy to improve and for more job opportunities.

“We are talking about my country, the country I grew up in,” she says. “I want to return and raise my family there.”

A little boy ran out of a voting booth Sunday in the Guatemalan department of San Marcos, a rural area south of the Mexican border. Grasping his mother’s hand, he victoriously screamed, “I voted!” holding up his inked index finger.

“He’s the only one here that’s excited,” joked Lesli Pérez, his mother, who says all the candidates in the first-round presidential vote have serious shortcomings – most prominently, allegations of corruption. 

If Guatemala’s 2015 presidential election was defined by a sense of hope and possibility, after a sitting president and vice president were arrested on fraud charges, this year’s vote underscores the persistence of Guatemala’s struggles with corruption and organized crime. 

Guatemala is increasingly in the global spotlight, with tens of thousands of Central Americans leaving or traveling through the country to flee poverty, violence, and lack of opportunity stopped at the U.S. border this year. And after years of battling corruption with the help of an independent body backed by the U.N., the government plans to shutter it in September (a process set in motion after it launched investigations into the current president). Yesterday’s election and its many twists and turns underscore the vast challenges the country’s next president will face – and the lack of confidence many here have in government leadership, spurring many people’s decisions to head north. 

Five candidates in a field of more than 20, including front-runners like anti-corruption crusader and former Attorney General Thelma Aldana, were disqualified in the weeks leading up to yesterday’s vote. With nearly all votes counted, former first lady Sandra Torres is the front runner, earning roughly 26% support. A runoff between Ms. Torres and four-time presidential candidate Alejandro Giammattei (14% of votes) is expected in early August. 

“There was this excitement and feeling of a potential for change in 2015,” says Mike Allison, a professor of political science at the University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania, who specializes in Central America. “But the initiative to fight organized crime in the country has been stalled if not crushed by [President Jimmy] Morales over the past four years. And it shows in the lack of enthusiasm for this election,” he says.

Voter turnout is estimated at 61% (compared to almost 70% in 2015), with an estimated 12 percent of ballots coming in blank or spoiled. Professor Allison notes that, with the two candidates who were polling first and second just a few months ago disqualified, Guatemalans are voting for their third and fourth preferences. In a poll released before the election, more than 30% of respondents said they anticipated election fraud.

‘A problem that transcends borders’

Migration from Guatemala is top of mind for neighbors Mexico and the United States, which have been locked in tense confrontations in recent weeks over the number of Central Americans crossing Mexico and arriving at the U.S. southern border. The topic played a fairly small role in campaign talking points and proposals, but experts say there are direct links between migration and the corruption that’s plagued Guatemala.

“Corruption in Guatemala has led to citizens not having access to quality public services for several decades,” says Lizbeth Gramajo Bauer, an anthropologist and political scientist who studies migration at Rafael Landívar University in Gautemala. Many communities migrants come from “have suffered decades of neglect by government authorities who have violated their rights to education, health, decent work, food, access to housing, and lives free of violence.”

There’s a “very close link between corruption and migration,” she says.

Guatemala ranked 144 out of 180 countries in the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index, compiled by Transparency International. Its citizens gave the Guatemalan public sector a confidence score of 27 out of 100 (down from 28 in 2017).

“Trust is a condition in democracies, especially during transition processes,” says Renzo Rosal, a political analyst in Guatemala City. But in Guatemala, trust “has gone in reverse,” potentially creating problems for the next president in terms of citizen confidence.

Talks are reportedly underway to place U.S. officials on the Guatemala-Mexico border, or possibly have Guatemala designated a “safe third country,” something Mexico has thus far refused to do. The designation would require migrants that arrive in Guatemala to apply for asylum there first.

Guatemala doesn’t have the “minimum conditions” to take in refugees, Professor Gramajo says.

Ms. Torres, who has run for president twice before, was allowed to run despite accusations of illicit campaign financing in her 2015 presidential bid. She told reporters on Sunday that her administration would focus on some of the root causes of migration, like “poverty, violence, delinquency, lack of political stability.” She also noted that migration “is a problem that transcends borders.”

As first lady from 2008-11, Ms. Torres oversaw many of the social programs of her now ex-husband’s administration. If she wins, “there might be a little more focus on rural issues than there was under Morales, which is important given that most of the people leaving Guatemala today are really leaving rural areas that have been neglected for decades,” says Professor Allison.

Nery Vásquez, a taxi driver who lived in the U.S. for five years in the 1990s, begrudgingly cast a ballot for leftist politician Manuel Villacorta, who he decided was least corrupt on the lengthy list of candidates. “We have to pick somebody [other than Sandra Torres], so that there’s competition,” he said, adding that none of the candidates excited him.

After voting, Mr. Vásquez immediately called his daughter in South Carolina. She was born in the U.S., but grew up in Guatemala. In 2013, she left for the U.S. in search of employment.

She and her father talked about the need to improve the economy and job opportunities – something they hope a new administration can focus on.

“We are talking about my country, the country I grew up in,” she says. “I want to return and raise my family there.”

• Emily Green contributed reporting from San Marcos, Guatemala.

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