In a stunning upset, progressive outsider Bernardo Arévalo, from the Movimiento Semilla party, won Guatemala’s presidential election on Sunday, beating former first lady Sandra Torres by a wide margin.
With more than 95% of the ballots counted, Arévalo had 59.1% of the votes, while Torres had 36.1%, according to official data from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE).
Arévalo, a former diplomat, sociologist and writer, 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.
He is the son of Juan José Arévalo, the former President of Guatemala between 1945 and 1951, who was known for his social reforms and opposition to US intervention. Arévalo was born in Uruguay in 1958 and spent parts of his childhood living in Venezuela, Mexico and Chile due to his father’s political exile following the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état.
Arévalo has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a doctorate in philosophy and social anthropology from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. He served as Guatemala’s Ambassador to Spain from 1995 to 1996, and as Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs from 1994 to 1995. He also co-founded the Movimiento Semilla party in 2017 and authored several books on democracy, peace processes, security and the role of the military.
Arévalo’s victory is seen as a rejection of the political establishment that has been plagued by fears of democratic backsliding after the state disqualified opposition candidates who spoke out against corruption. The situation worsened after a United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission, known as CICIG, was dissolved in 2019, rights groups say.
Analysts caution there could also be attempts to undermine Arévalo’s victory by state actors, pointing to attempts 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.
Arévalo will face many challenges as he prepares to take office on January 14, 2024. He will have to deal with a Congress that is largely controlled by establishment parties, including Torres’ Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza. He will also have to address the migration crisis that has driven thousands of Guatemalans to move to the United States in recent years.
Arévalo has said he wants to improve relations with the US and other countries in the region, but also defend Guatemala’s sovereignty and interests. He has also expressed support for restoring the CICIG or creating a similar mechanism to fight corruption and impunity.
Arévalo’s supporters celebrated his victory as a historic moment for Guatemala’s democracy and a sign of hope for change. The president of the TSE, Irma Palencia, said during a press conference on Sunday night that “today, the people voice’s spoke.”