On Sunday, Guatemalans will head to the polls to elect their next leader in runoff elections. The presidential contest pits former first lady Sandra Torres of the center-left National Unity of Hope (UNE) against former prisons director Alejandro Giammattei of the right-wing Vamos party. How might either choice affect the struggles against violence, corruption and underdevelopment in this Central American country, which is currently the single largest source of migrants attempting to enter the United States? And could the electoral outcome affect a recent agreement designating Guatemala a safe third country for people seeking asylum in the United States? Here’s what you need to know:
Who is likely to win?
Torres is most popular among the country’s rural, predominantly Mayan population. She garnered the highest share of votes in the first round of elections on June 16, winning 26 percent of ballots cast. However, the latest CID-Gallup poll suggests Giammattei, who came in second with 14 percent of the first-round vote, has pulled ahead. Some 39.5 percent of respondents said they would vote for him in the second round, while 32.4 percent said they intended to vote for Torres.
We’ve seen this story before in Guatemala. In previous presidential votes, Torres was initially a front-runner, only to lose to Jimmy Morales, a comedian turned outsider candidate, who has served as president since 2016. As first lady, Torres championed policies to support the poor, including the conditional cash-transfer program Mi Familia Progresa. But such initiatives were plagued by a lack of transparency, and observers and critics have called them corrupt, vote-buying schemes. Those charges helped mobilize a mostly urban, wealthy opposition movement that handed Morales victory in 2015. The same “anti-Sandra” coalition could thwart her presidential aspirations once again.
National polling tends to be biased toward the urban voters, though, and no one can predict how null and spoiled ballots might tilt the outcome. So the race remains more uncertain than it seems.
What will the outcome mean for Guatemala?
Regardless of which candidate triumphs, there is little hope the next government will bring much progress on the issues Guatemalans care about: corruption, security and economic opportunity.
Both Torres and Giammattei, fixtures in Guatemalan politics for decades, have been linked to high-level corruption scandals. In 2017, Torres’s party was accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in unreported campaign contributions. Earlier this year, her former running mate, Mario Leal Castillo, was charged with operating shell companies that laundered additional campaign funds.
Giammattei has also been tied to illicit activities and political figures from Guatemala’s authoritarian past. After he served as national prisons director in 2006, Giammattei was accused of coordinating a death squad that carried out extrajudicial killings against gang members and drug traffickers. He was acquitted. However, analysts allege Giammattei remains linked to ex-military figures involved in organized crime and past human rights violations.
Given the accusations against them, neither Torres nor Giammattei is likely to bring back the landmark U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which worked alongside the attorney general’s office to investigate and prosecute dozens of corruption cases against political and economic elites over the past decade. For ordinary citizens, CICIG was Guatemala’s most trusted institution. But after CICIG alleged that Morales had taken illegal campaign contributions, the president kicked its leader out of the country and shut down the organization’s work. Guatemala recently managed to reduce homicides significantly, in no small part because of CICIG’s work. Without CICIG’s political and technical support, the country’s anti-corruption crusade will be hampered.
Moreover, neither candidate has offered new solutions for reducing insecurity and spurring economic growth. Torres has promised to address unemployment and attract new investment, while Giammattei has vowed to construct “an economic wall of prosperity and jobs” to deter would-be migrants from seeking opportunities beyond Guatemalan borders. Both economic proposals are thin on specifics.
If elected, both candidates are likely to bring back policies that criminalize gang membership and deploy the military to combat crime — despite the dearth of evidence that they actually work. Policy analysts instead have argued that these mano dura (“iron fist”) policies can strengthen gangs by facilitating recruits and criminal enterprises within overcrowded prisons and can increase human rights violations. Without new solutions to address gang extortion or to help increase economic opportunities, the next government will have a hard time reducing irregular migration. Poverty and gang violence continue to push staggering numbers of Guatemalans north to the United States.
How will the election affect the recently signed “safe third country” agreement?
On July 26, the Morales administration signed a deal with the White House to establish Guatemala as a “safe third country” and require asylum seekers who pass through Guatemalan territory on their journey north to seek refuge there. However, the costly and time-consuming work of carrying out such an agreement would fall to the winner of Sunday’s electoral contest.
There’s good reason to believe Guatemala’s next government will not put the accord into effect. Giammattei has called Morales’s acquiescence to the Trump administration “irresponsible.” Torres also rejected any safe third country agreement, though she did meet privately with acting homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan during his bid to sell the agreement within Guatemala. Though Guatemala’s top business associations have supported the agreement under the threat of devastating tariffs, the deal remains widely unpopular among the rest of society, even triggering protests outside the Presidential Palace.
Guatemala’s constitutional court, moreover, has ruled that the agreement requires congressional approval. Guatemalan human rights ombudsman Jordán Rodas has lodged an additional legal challenge on the grounds that, per international law, “agreements signed under threats cannot take legal effect.”
But even if the next president agreed to implement the agreement, it’s unlikely he or she would be able to do so. The Trump administration wants Guatemala — a country that ranks among the most corrupt and ineffective in the world — to harbor refugees and to stop its citizens from leaving. That’s not going to happen, regardless of Sunday’s outcome.