Guatemala - Scenarios for the second round
There is a glimmer of hope for Guatemalan democracy, but don't be surprised if it gets snuffed out.
If Bernardo Arévalo had surged in the polls a few weeks earlier, he would have been banned. Like everyone else, Guatemalan President Giammattei underestimated Arévalo and the Semilla political movement in this election and didn't bother banning him. Polling around 3% support prior to the first round, Arevalo was a long shot. Either due to a late surge of support or a cluster of voters that didn't register in the polling, Arévalo took 12% of the vote, winning second place this past weekend, giving him a chance to be president in a runoff against Sandra Torres in August.
Now there is a glimmer of hope for Guatemalan democracy, but don't be surprised if it gets snuffed out. Arévalo is promising serious anti-corruption reforms that the Giammattei government has worked hard to block and undermine over the last four years. My take in last week's World Politics Review column was that "change is not on the ballot." Well, 12% of Guatemalan voters are trying to prove me wrong in finding a potential candidate for change and narrowly pushing him into a second round thanks to a very divided first round candidate field. But the bigger point I was making in that column remains: the elites in power have actively worked to undermine any chances for change to come to power in this election and will continue to do so into the second round.
Moving forward, imagine six scenarios:
Authoritarian repression (aka, the worst-case scenario): The authorities find some reason to ban Arévalo from running in the second round or there is an outright stealing of the election in the second round that means Guatemala is fully undemocratic.
Torres victory and status quo politics: In spite of high unfavorability ratings, Torres has a party organization, rural support, and the machines of other parties close to the government and the ruling elite will likely prefer her. In that respect, she could win in a free-ish and fair-ish election against a lesser-known candidate with far less organization. Torres would be beholden to the powers that elected her and this would lead to a largely status quo result.
Torres victory and change politics: While it doesn't seem likely today, it's possible Torres wins and then surprises everyone with serious economic reforms and an anti-corruption agenda that cleans up Guatemala's system.
Arévalo victory, followed by institutional blocks: If Arévalo wins, the most likely scenario is that the other parties use their control over the congress, court system, military, and business structures of the country, to prevent his presidency from being successful. It ends up being a frustrating four years in which little is accomplished. Guatemalans will be angry that they voted for a change candidate that didn't deliver.
Arévalo victory, followed by overreach and corruption: There is a hypothetical bad scenario which would be an Arévalo victory followed by an anti-democratic or authoritarian push by the new president or a new president who is just as corrupt as his predecessors. There is no reason in Arévalo’s or Semilla's history to think this is likely, but it's also not an absolute impossibility.
Arévalo victory, followed by democratic renewal: From the outside, this is what we're all hoping for (and it's worth warning moving forward that the pro-Arévalo bias among pundits, NGOs, and journalists is going to be strong and will influence some of the analysis). In this scenario, a new president comes in and works to pass an agenda that brings back independent prosecutors and implements economic reforms to reduce Guatemala's poverty.
Scenarios 2 and 4 are the most likely at the moment. Either Torres wins and continues the status quo or Arévalo wins and is blocked by other institutions and powerbrokers from implementing any serious reforms. Given how the authorities have acted, my analysis remains that "the game is rigged" in this election and change through the ballot box is unlikely in the short term. And still, the opportunity for a meaningful choice in this second round is something worth cheering. The analysis aside, we can and should hope and work for better.