Anti-corruption candidate Bernardo Arévalo, from the progressive Movimiento Semilla party, won Guatemala’s presidential election on Sunday, beating former first lady Sandra Torres in a race marred by fears of democratic backsliding.
Speaking to reporters shortly after preliminary election results showed him winning a majority, Arévalo said the people have “spoken loudly.”
“What the people are shouting at us is: ‘Enough of so much corruption’ – This is a demonstration of the change of mind that we are witnessing in Guatemala,” he said. “Guatemalans today have hope and we are celebrating in the streets the recovery of the sense of hope in our country.”
Arévalo won 58.01% of the vote compared to Torres’ 37.24%, according to official data from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
It marks a stunning win for the former diplomat who reinvigorated a race that has been plagued by controversy after the state disqualified opposition candidates who spoke out against corruption – drawing concerns from rights groups and Western allies.
“Corruption is a phenomenon that has penetrated the different institutions of society and has infiltrated the different spaces. Our task will be to recover those spaces,” Arévalo said Sunday.
The president of the electoral tribunal, Irma Palencia, said during a press conference on Sunday night that “today, the people voice’s spoke,” as it became apparent that Arévalo had won by a large margin.
Guatemala’s President Alejandro Giammattei congratulated Arévalo for his win in a post on X, saying he would “extend the invitation to start the ordered transition the day after the results are official.”
The center-left politician Arévalo tapped into widespread public discontent with his promises to curb crime and corruption, tackle malnutrition, and bring growth to a country that has one of the highest levels of inequality in the region.
Achieving those goals won’t be easy for Arévalo, whose father was the country’s first democratically elected president, as Congress is set to be largely controlled by establishment parties, including Torres’ Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE).
UNE questioned the results in a statement Monday. “The UNE Party is respectful of the Rule of Law, and we will establish a final position when the results are clarified with total transparency, as we have been demanding regarding the use of the Preliminary Electoral Results Transmission System (TREP),” the statement read.
“Let us remember that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal never clarified why it endorsed the irregular use of a parallel system for the Departmental Electoral Board of the Central District and Department of Guatemala, used during the first electoral round and which failed in other countries.”
The party added that it regretted that international observers have never spoken out to review the alleged irregularities.
The Electoral Observation Mission of Guatemala observed the elections over the weekend and reported no irregularities.
Several losing parties denounced irregularities after the first round of elections on June 25.
Attempts at disqualification
Analysts cautioned there could also be attempts to undermine the victory by Arévalo.
There were previous efforts by state actors to disqualify him after his surprise second place finish during the first round of voting in June.
A Guatemalan court suspended his Movimiento Semilla party on the request of Rafael Curruchiche, who heads the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity and is on the US State Department’s Engel List of “corrupt and undemocratic actors.”
Curruchiche said they were investigating Movimiento Semilla for allegedly falsifying citizens’ signatures – a claim Arévalo has denied.
His win comes as regional observers say rising kleptocracy, graft and weakening rule of law have exacerbated inequality in the Central American country, driving thousands of Guatemalans to move to the United States in recent years.
The situation worsened after a United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission, known as CICIG, credited for assisting in hundreds of convictions, was dissolved in 2019, rights groups say.
Prosecutors and judges associated with the commission were arrested and investigated and many have since fled the country. The ensuing years have seen high rates of poverty and malnutrition.
Members of the media who have opposed corruption in their reporting have also faced legal consequences. This year, prominent Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora was sentenced to six years in prison for money laundering, in a ruling press groups described as an attack on free speech.