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Why a Guatemalan court’s decision to freeze presidential election results is stirring criticism


A week after Guatemala’s June 25 elections boosted a relative long-shot candidate into the final second round of voting, the country’s top court has frozen certification of the election results.

Several political parties filed appeals questioning the vote, and the court agreed to freeze certification of final tallies until those complaints can be reviewed.

The United States and international bodies have criticized the freeze as a lack of respect for the will of almost 5.5 million people who turned out to vote.

The elections were already marred by the official disqualification of several popular candidates, often on questionable technical grounds.

WHAT HAPPENED IN THE JUNE 25 ELECTIONS?

In a crowded field, the center-right candidate and former first lady Sandra Torres of the National Hope Unity part came in first with 15.8% of the vote.

Coming in second was left-of-center candidate Bernardo Arévalo, whose father was president before Jacobo Arbenz, who was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup in 1954. Arévalo got 11.7% support.

While Torres is widely seen as a continuity candidate, Arévalo, of the Seed Movement, has pledged to go after endemic corruption.

While there were an incredible 29 candidates, the biggest winner was null or voided votes, at about 17.3%. The null votes were widely seen as a protest against the current state of Guatemalan politics, and the fact several candidates were kept out of the race.

Given that nobody won 50%, the top two vote-getters will compete in a second round on Aug. 20 — if the results of the first round are upheld.

WHAT HAPPENED WITH THE VOTE COUNT?

By the day after the elections, a preliminary count based on tallies reported by voting precincts was quickly added up, revealing the results. But those results must still be officialized by the country’s electoral court.

Ten of the 29 parties that ran candidates in the race filed complaints, alleging there were problems with the count they claim may have cost them votes. They filed for an injunction against officializing the results. But none of those parties won more than 8% of the vote.

WHAT IS THE COURT DOING?

The court has frozen the tally process, and said it will go back to compare the totals of votes reported by each polling place, adding them up and comparing them to the preliminary count. The court has also said that, if necessary, it could order a ballot-by-ballot recount, even though the country’s electoral laws make no provision for that.

Precincts have five days to report back with the results of each polling place. That would push the court’s next move to at least late this week.

HOW HAVE GUATEMALANS RESPONDED?

Dozens of people demonstrated outside the court over the weekend, shouting “My vote should count at the ballot box, not in court.”

Arévalo attended the protest, saying “we are not going to allow the will of the people of Guatemala to be cheated.”

Civic groups noted that, because so many candidates were disqualified from running in the race, the dispute “is very dangerous for a democracy that has become ever more corroded by the misuse of legal tricks.”

WHAT HAS BEEN THE REACTION?

International observers have said the voting appeared to have been fair, and noted that recounts were not contemplated in existing legislation.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote that “the United States supports the Guatemalan people’s constitutional right to elect their leaders via free and fair elections. We are deeply concerned by the ongoing efforts that interfere with the June 25 election result.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a statement saying he has “taken note of the concerns” and urged the problem be resolved “in conformity with the applicable electoral norms.”

The Guatemalan government issued a statement Sunday brushing off the concerns and suggesting they constituted interference. “For us the principle of sovereignty is unwavering, and, therefore, the respect for legality that lays the foundations of our democratic system.”

Tiziano Breda, a Latin America expert at Italy’s Instituto Affari Internazionali, called the court action “one of the most baseless and barefaced attempts in recent years to question the results of an election.”

Breda added that it seems like the parties that didn’t make it to the second round or into Congress are worried there could be some policy changes that affect them.


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