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Supporters of the Liberation of the People (MLP) political party protest that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal denied the candidacy of their vice president hopeful Jordan Rodas in Guatemala City, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023. The sign reads in Spanish "We demand transparent elections." The Electoral Tribunal has barred two candidates from running for president in the elections set for June 2023. © (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

(Washington, DC) - Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal decision to bar candidates from running in the 2023 presidential elections on dubious grounds threatens political rights and damages the credibility of the electoral process, Human Rights Watch and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) said today.

In recent weeks, the electoral tribunal that oversees elections has effectively barred Thelma Cabrera, an indigenous left-wing leader, and Roberto Arzú, a right-wing candidate, from running for president.

“The decision to bar these candidates is based on dubious grounds and could undermine the rights of all Guatemalans to participate in free and fair elections,” said Ana María Méndez-Dardón, director for Central America at WOLA. “Guatemalan authorities should urgently review these decisions and ensure a fair playing field for all candidates.”

The electoral process is taking place in a context of deterioration of the rule of law, where the institutions charged with overseeing the elections have little independence or credibility, Human Rights Watch and WOLA said. Apparent efforts to bar opposition candidates or to initiate arbitrary criminal proceedings against them create an uneven playing field that could prevent the election from being free and fair.

On February 2, magistrates for the elections body rejected the candidacy for Cabrera and her running mate for vice president, Jordán Rodas, the country’s previous ombudsperson.

On January 6, Alejandro Córdova, the current ombudsperson, presented a criminal complaint against Rodas, expressing unspecified “doubts” about the way Rodas obtained a payment related to his role in the ombudsperson’s office. The complaint was presented after Rodas and Cabrera applied to be registered as candidates. Congress appointed Córdova in July 2022 through a process that lacked transparency.

Guatemalan law requires current and former officials and other people who have handled public funds who wish to run for public office to obtain a certificate from the comptroller to confirm that they are not under investigation for misuse of public funds.

On January 27, an elections official ruled that Cabrera and Rodas could not run because there was an “annotation” in Rodas’ certificate owing to the criminal complaint from Córdova. The electoral tribunal confirmed the decision on February 2, with 4-1 majority and, on February 15, the Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit to review the decision.

The authorities should overturn the decision to bar Cabrera and Rodas, Human Rights Watch and WOLA said. The complaint’s timing and unsubstantiated nature mean it should not be sufficient reason to exclude them from running for office.

On February 6, elections magistrates also denied Arzú’s candidacy. The magistrates ruled that Arzú was not “suitable” for office – a requirement under the Guatemalan constitution – because he had violated the prohibition of campaigning before the 2023 electoral process officially started and failed to pay a fine connected to his violation of electoral norms during the 2019 electoral campaign.

Guatemalan law forbids candidates from campaigning outside of the electoral period, but candidates often violate this rule. The authorities normally impose fines on them and have rarely excluded them from running.

Guatemalan authorities should review the decision to bar Arzú and ensure that any sanction is proportionate to his violation of electoral norms and applied equally to all candidates, Human Rights Watch and WOLA said.

The American Convention on Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Guatemala has ratified, protects citizens’ rights to take part in public affairs, vote, and be elected. The Human Rights Committee, which monitors countries’ compliance with the ICCPR, has said that any restrictions on the right to run or hold public office should be based on “objective and reasonable criteria.”

International observers, including from the European Union and Organization of American States (OAS), should thoroughly examine electoral conditions, including the exclusion of candidates and the use of spurious criminal charges against them, and call on the Guatemalan authorities to respect democratic values. They should also closely monitor allegations of unlawful financing of political campaigns, including by businesspeople and organized crime, and raise concerns about apparent violations.

Concerned governments, including the United States and those in Europe and Latin America, should monitor the electoral process closely and publicly call for free and fair elections.

“International scrutiny is key to protecting the country’s democracy and Guatemalans’ right to vote and run for public office,” Juan Pappier, Americas acting deputy director at Human Rights Watch, said.

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