(Washington, DC) - International scrutiny is essential to ensure Guatemalans’ rights to free and fair elections, Human Rights Watch and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), said today in releasing a joint question and answer document exploring the main challenges to human rights to the country’s electoral process.
On January 20, 2023, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (Tribunal Supremo Electoral, TSE), the highest authority in electoral matters in Guatemala, called for candidate nominations, officially beginning the electoral period. Guatemalans will go to polls on June 25 to elect a new president, 160 lawmakers, and over 300 mayors. If no presidential candidate obtains more than 50 percent of the votes, a runoff election will take place in late August.
“This year’s elections are a critical test for Guatemala’s fragile democracy,” said Juan Pappier, Americas acting deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “They will take place in a context of deterioration of the rule of law, where the institutions charged with overseeing the elections have little independence or credibility.”
Independent institutions play a key role in ensuring free and fair elections, the groups said. They should act as a check on attempts to make the playing field uneven. This includes, among others, by impeding arbitrary disqualifications or prosecutions of political opponents, preventing the partisan use of state resources in campaigns, investigating unlawful campaign financing, and guaranteeing the respect for the rule of law.
Key institutions such as the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, the Comptroller General, and the Attorney General’s Office should guarantee Guatemalan citizens their political rights and protect the electoral process’ legitimacy, Human Rights Watch and WOLA said. Many members of these bodies have been appointed through processes that were not fair, transparent, or independent, and have shown open disregard for the rule of law.
In recent years, the authorities in Guatemala have undermined the separation of powers and human rights safeguards in an effort to ensure impunity for widespread high-level corruption. The Attorney General’s Office has also pursued spurious criminal charges against independent journalists, prosecutors, and judges who have investigated and exposed corruption, human rights violations, and abuse of power.
Given the progressive deterioration of the rule of law in Guatemala, international scrutiny is key to protecting the country’s democracy and Guatemalans’ right to vote and run for public office, Human Rights Watch and WOLA said.
Concerned governments, including the United States and in Europe and Latin America, should monitor the electoral process closely and call for free and fair elections. They should also impose targeted sanctions against businesspeople and government officials who undermine the rule of law to press them to end their abuses, the groups said.
In January 2023, the European Union conducted an “exploratory electoral mission” in the country. In October 2022, the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, expressed his interest in sending electoral observers to Guatemala. The authorities have not yet announced whether OAS observers will be allowed to monitor the elections.
Observers should closely monitor allegations of unlawful financing of political campaigns, including by businesspeople and organized crime. Investigations by the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) – shuttered by the administration of former President Jimmy Morales in 2019 – exposed how unlawful campaign financing opens the door to corruption and helps “distort Guatemala’s democratic model,” the commission said.
“Electoral observers should begin their work as soon as possible and make sure that their analysis goes well-beyond the developments of election day,” said Ana María Méndez-Dardón, Director for Central America at WOLA. “In particular, they should carefully analyze any attempts to bar opposition candidates, initiate arbitrary criminal proceedings against them, or other efforts to make the playing field uneven.”