Rachel A. Schwarz and Anita Isaacs in latest Journal of Democracy: How Guatemala Resisted Crony Authoritarianism: Start Organizing Opposition

“How Guatemala Defied the Odds”


Guatemala has experienced sustained democratic backsliding, including the manipulation of the 2023 electoral playing field. Yet, against the odds, Guatemalan citizens defied the ruling regime’s electoral authoritarian strategy, voting an anticorruption reformer into power. This article analyzes Guatemala’s (anti)democratic trajectory and explains how opposition actors resisted further backsliding during the 2023 electoral process. The authors argue that the Guatemalan regime reflects a “criminal oligarchy,” and examine how rule-of-law advances prompted elite backlash that eviscerated democratic institutions. The unexpected 2023 electoral outcome, however, illustrates the possibilities of exploiting fissures in the criminal-oligarchic coalition to arrest authoritarian consolidation.

Guatemala’s 2023 elections were expected to be a high watermark for rising authoritarianism in the country. Despite multiparty competition, the ruling regime undertook antidemocratic maneuvers to subvert meaningful contestation. Before voters went to the polls in the June 25 first round, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the attorney-general’s office (MP), and the courts manufactured electoral violations to disqualify antiestablishment candidates from across the political spectrum.

The manipulation of the electoral arena was just one of the methods that President Alejandro Giammattei had used since 2020 to deepen authoritarian rule under color of law. The distortion of the electoral landscape followed a vicious campaign to criminalize the public authorities and civil society leaders who had led the struggle against impunity for corruption and human-rights abuses. Dozens of former judicial officials, journalists, and activists were detained or forced into exile.

Thus it seemed all but certain that the 2023 election cycle would only accelerate democratic backsliding in this Central American country of eighteen million. Yet observers both at home and abroad were stunned when little-known reformer, congressional deputy, and former diplomat Bernardo Arévalo—the last antisystem candidate standing—finished second in the 22-candidate first round. That was enough to launch him into the presidential runoff against three-time contender and former first lady Sandra Torres, who won almost 16 percent. Arévalo had been polling at only 3 percent, making his electoral surge one of the biggest that Latin America has seen in the last decade.1 His Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement) party, which held a mere seven seats in the 2019–23 [End Page 21] Congress, more than tripled its seat share by winning 23 of the unicameral legislature’s 160 seats.

In response, the ruling regime and its allies mobilized the accustomed judicial instruments. On dubious grounds, the Constitutional Court ordered an election audit, but this found no evidence of fraud. Enlisting a corrupt criminal-court judge, the MP called for Semilla’s disqualification and sought to criminalize party organizers as well as the election officials who certified the first-round results.

But the legal onslaught did not derail the runoff. On August 20, Arévalo won a 58 percent landslide, beating Torres in 17 of Guatemala’s 22 provinces. In two months, Arévalo had gone from scant name recognition to earning more votes than any presidential candidate in Guatemalan history.

How did Guatemalan voters defy the odds and seize the 2023 electoral process to take a stand against authoritarian consolidation? And how did they do this in the face of a ruling “criminal oligarchy” that depends on state capture and impunity secured by the suppression of political competition and dissent? In the 2010s, an unprecedented anticorruption movement had begun to threaten the once-stable coexistence of minimalist democracy and criminal oligarchy. In response, the ruling coalition sought not only to restore the old political order but to dismantle democratic institutions in order to destroy the possibility of future progress in strengthening the rule of law.

The shocking 2023 election outcome shows that authoritarian strategy at least partly backfiring. The criminal oligarchy remains a threat, but the contest that surprised it by going the other way now stands as an unexpected moment of resistance to democratic backsliding. The moment has emerged from the actions and interactions of three sets of actors: 1) the criminaloligarchic coalition, which faced postelection coordination problems and splintering due to competing incentives; 2) the domestic opposition, which drew strength from the normative and organizational legacies of the mid-2010s anticorruption campaign; and 3) the international community, which pressed to see the will of Guatemalan voters upheld. While the criminal oligarchy still has weapons that it can use and the risks of authoritarian regression accordingly loom large, the Guatemalan case illustrates that even when autocratic rule rests atop enduring “protection pacts,”2prodemocratic forces can exploit their fissures and arrest democratic backsliding.

What Is Criminal Oligarchy?

The authoritarian regime that evolved in Guatemala eludes straightforward labels. The extreme concentration of political power in the executive—a hallmark of autocratization—has not come to pass, and no national-level personalist leader has gained traction. In this, Guatemala differs from both Nicaragua, where the repressive dynasty of [End Page 22] Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo has consolidated control and appropriated state assets, and El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele has used his sky-high popularity and legislative supermajority to eviscerate institutional independence.3 Weak and ephemeral party vehicles in Guatemala have also precluded the kind of single-party rule that evolved in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, or that was developing under Bolivia’s Evo Morales before his 2019 ouster.4

Though there is no hegemonic party or figure, the Guatemalan case is not an instance of “democratic hollowing” that comes from hyperfragmentation and self-interested authoritarian power grabs, as in Peru.5 The large number of parties that ran in 2023 suggests hyperfragmentation, but in truth the political establishment is fairly coherent outside the electoral arena. Its ability to coordinate for the purpose of undermining the rule of law illustrates this.

“Oligarchy” is the concept that we find most helpful in making sense of Guatemala’s brand of authoritarianism.6The term means rule by the wealthy.7 In such a regime, political power flows from wealth, and is used to defend wealth by securing property and resisting redistribution. Oligarchic systems can internally feature competition or cooperation—the former if rich individuals clash over conflicting ambitions, the latter if shared goals foster alliances.

On its face, oligarchy is not inherently incompatible with liberal democracy. Even though the distribution of political power will be far from equal, oligarchy can in theory coexist with respect for political rights, accountable and independent institutions, and the rule of law. But the form of oligarchy that prevails in Guatemala is, as we term it, “criminal.” As such, it cannot be sustained alongside liberal democracy. In criminal oligarchy, power is derived from illicit as well as licit wealth. Alongside traditional wealth sources such as agriculture, commerce, industry, and service provision lie illegal wellsprings such as the corrupt capture of state resources and organized crime in the form of drug trafficking, money laundering, and extortion.8

These forms of illicit accumulation make politicians and crime bosses rich. In league with entrenched economic interests, they deploy political power to keep their distinct forms of wealth generation going. They coerce judicial personnel into shelving criminal cases, bribe officials for lucrative public contracts, and exert political pressure to keep redistributive measures off the national agenda.

Criminal oligarchy, in other words, requires weak institutions and a hobbled rule of law, while liberal democracy requires the opposite. Where public institutions are independent and accountable to the governed, officials will be harder for criminal powerbrokers to corrupt or intimidate. Where courts enforce the law, elites will not so easily insulate their interests. Where individuals enjoy basic rights and the press is [End Page 23] free, anomalies in public contracting and collusion between government and organized crime will be uncovered and denounced. Thus, to the extent that criminal oligarchy takes root in a plural and competitive political system, that system’s democratic institutions will remain fragile.

Guatemala’s contemporary oligarchic structure encompasses a mix of political, economic, and criminal actors. Its architects were military officers who rose to power during the 1960–96 internal armed conflict, claiming streams of rents as well as impunity for crimes and humanrights abuses.9 These soldiers allied themselves with the traditional elites in commercial agriculture, construction, and finance that had long held state power. In addition, newer-moneyed owners of import-export companies, media conglomerates, and large infrastructure and energy projects have acquired tremendous influence over Guatemalan politics. Organized crime forms yet another pillar of the system, alongside the political class.

The modes of wealth concentration are equally varied. Sugar, coffee, African palm, poultry, cement, beer, and textiles dominate internal and external markets. But many of the business elites that derive wealth from these goods and services are also state contractors, receiving government awards for infrastructure projects, equipment, and other supplies. Kickbacks on state contracts make public procurement lucrative for the national and local politicians who hold the keys to state coffers. Organized criminal activities such as drug trafficking amass vast wealth for transnational illicit groups and affiliates on their payrolls (legitimate businesses willing to act as fronts for money laundering, public officials who take bribes to look the other way).

The wealthy interests that populate Guatemala’s criminal-oligarchic landscape are neither static nor unified. There are struggles over rents and access, and rival cliques jockey for power as elections rearrange the relative standing of various political factions. Yet the chronic polarization and interbranch conflicts that spawn crises in other Latin American countries are little known in Guatemala. Instead, when its core interests are threatened, the criminal oligarchy hangs together. Political or judicial challenges that threaten rent-seeking and corruption or the reign of impunity tend to run into a united front against reform.

Rulers’ Rise and Decline

During Guatemala’s postconflict decades, the criminal oligarchy tentatively coexisted with political liberalization and democratic progress. Or at least that was the case until Jimmy Morales became president in 2016. He and Giammattei, his successor, oversaw authoritarian reversals. The antidemocratic onslaught was the criminal oligarchy’s backlash against something new: an internationally sponsored campaign to dismantle criminal networks embedded in the state while strengthening [End Page 24] the rule of law. The anticorruption movement posed a real and sustained challenge to the impunity undergirding the criminal oligarchy, so the elites opted to try a different approach of their own: curtail political rights and use the legal system to neutralize opposition. In short, they eviscerated democratic institutions to save criminal oligarchy.

The seeds of the prevailing system can be found in the armed conflict, which pitted military dictatorships against leftist insurgent groups, resulting in more than 200,000 deaths and disappearances, as well as state-perpetrated acts of genocide. The civil war erupted following the 1944–54 decade known as the “Democratic Spring.” During this period, reformist governments under Bernardo Arévalo’s father, President Juan José Arévalo, and his successor Jacobo Arbenz threatened the political and economic status quo. They introduced wide-ranging reforms to expand suffrage, labor protections, and social welfare. Under Arbenz, the government pledged to redistribute idle plantation lands to landless peasants. The agrarian elite and radical, anticommunist military factions then ousted him in a U.S.-backed coup. Many in Guatemala’s richest families took away the lesson that tolerating democratic change would be dangerous.10 The conflict also brought power and wealth to the army and fostered its alliance with the economic elite, thereby laying the criminal oligarchy’s groundwork.11

Rather than being a clean break with the wartime past, the political opening of the 1990s became a way for the elite to secure its wealth while guaranteeing impunity for human-rights violations, all under the veneer of procedural democracy. Generals and business leaders maneuvered to ensure that the UN-brokered peace deal would shield their economic and political interests. Despite the breadth of the 1996 peace accords, the architects of criminal oligarchy came out of this era having successfully shelved redistributive measures, secured a wide (albeit not quite total) amnesty for wartime rights abuses, and erected high barriers to political-party formation.

The ruling elite conserved the criminal-oligarchic project without having to return to war. The elite mobilized to defeat a constitutional referendum that would have enshrined the peace accord’s provisions in law. Then came the construction of a party system that restricted the ability to compete to the elite’s allies and gave former soldiers and traditional business interests new avenues for taking control of the state. Next was large-scale privatization of state-owned enterprises to further concentrate wealth in the hands of business and organized criminal sectors. Selection processes for Supreme Court justices and appeals-court magistrates were handed to “postulation commissions” comprising academic administrators and bar-association representatives who had been bought off to ensure impunity-friendly courts.12

Overseen by Congress, similar dynamics came to govern the selection of the attorney-general, the comptroller-general, and TSE magistrates. [End Page 25] Criminal investigations, public procurement, and electoral rules are thus—as a matter of routine—in the hands of officials who are beholden to the criminal-oligarchic coalition. Incomplete efforts to purge and train the new civilian police force fomented crime and insecurity. Guatemala’s peacetime, nominally democratic institutions were thus born into an environment where impunity, violence, and corruption remained the rule—an environment engineered by the leaders of criminal oligarchy.

Yet, by the mid-2010s, two developments were disrupting this dynamic and driving criminal oligarchy’s beneficiaries into a coalition premised on the belief that their shared political and economic project could never survive under democracy, no matter how enfeebled. The first development was a series of trials related to wartime human-rights violations. Junior soldiers were the first defendants, but in January 2012 proceedings began against Efraín Ríos Montt, the former military dictator accused of orchestrating a scorched-earth campaign during 1982 and 1983.

Ríos Montt’s 2013 trial was the first in the world in which a head of state had to face genocide charges in a national court of the country where the crimes had taken place. This pathbreaking proceeding met with a criminal-oligarchic reaction. Business groups were concerned about Guatemala’s image abroad and anxious that the spotlight might shift to the genocidal regime’s economic backers, while ex-officers feared that they too might end up in the dock. These veterans included, significantly, President Otto Pérez Molina: He had been stationed in the predominantly Mayan highlands, the area most ravaged by state violence. Although the Constitutional Court later annulled the eventual guilty verdict against Ríos Montt on procedural grounds and he died in 2018 (before a new trial could commence), the case was a harbinger. In 2019, the army’s former chief of staff, top intelligence officer, and top operations officer all faced charges. The ability of independent courts and prosecutors to pierce the veil of impunity was clear beyond doubt.

The second development came to a head in 2015, when the UNsponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), introduced in 2007 to partner with the MP and strengthen the rule of law, threatened the criminal oligarchy with destruction. The CICIG-MP team shifted away from pursuing discrete cases in order to [End Page 26] target the fluid “illicit politico-economic networks” that sustained impunity.13 Criminal schemes were uncovered that exposed President Pérez Molina’s ruling party as what one CICIG press release called “a criminal mafia structure that had coopted power via the ballot box.”14 Hundreds of officials from the tax authority, the police, the energy ministry, and other institutions were implicated. Under popular pressure, Congress stripped Pérez Molina and his vice-president of their immunity, landing both behind bars.

The anticorruption mobilization, however, made its enemies resolved to roll back democratic institutions. The investigations carried on into the Morales administration, showing they were not a one-off campaign. In finding themselves as the targets rather than the masters of the Guatemalan legal system, the beneficiaries of criminal oligarchy realized that the struggle between their enterprise and even a minimal democracy was a zero-sum game, and that defending impunity would take more drastic measures.

The Authoritarian Counteroffensive

Grasping that it had ceded too much ground, the criminal oligarchy crafted a new plan to gut democratic advances. The first step was to oust the CICIG; in late 2019, President Morales refused to renew its mandate for another four-year period. Under Giammattei, MP lawyers who had worked with the CICIG were fired and high-profile corruption cases were shelved. The office of the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity (FECI), once in the anticorruption vanguard, became instead the spearhead of efforts to criminalize former judicial officials.

To limit political competition, coopted institutions were used to bar any 2023 candidate who challenged the status quo or simply seemed unreliable. The TSE excluded the progressive ticket of indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera and her running mate, former human-rights ombudsman Jordán Rodas. Efforts to cull the slate of presidential competitors also extended to right-wing figures such as Roberto Arzú, who antagonized the traditional private sector. And at the eleventh hour, the TSE disqualified frontrunner Carlos Pineda, who had risen to the top of the polls through his social-media presence and populist discourse.

Independent media were silenced too. Methods long used to intimidate and attack journalists looking into corruption found new shelter under an MP committed to safeguarding impunity. In mid-2022, José Rubén Zamora, the founder and director of the investigative newspaper El Periódico, was sent to jail on phony money-laundering charges allegedly concocted after his publication began reporting on government graft by Giammattei and his cronies. During his trial, the judge ordered eight journalists investigated on claims that they had been obstructing justice. [End Page 27] 

Finally, Guatemala’s ruling coalition became adept at manipulating the international community, particularly the United States, which came to treat corrupt regime leaders as allies. Following Donald Trump’s 2016 election to the U.S. presidency, the fixation on undocumented migration displaced concern for the rule of law. Sensing a new opening, criminal-oligarchic elites lobbied to convince U.S. officials of the CICIG’s partisan nature. Morales gained favor with Trump by relocating Guatemala’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem and by signing a “safe third country” agreement that forced asylum seekers passing through Guatemala to seek refuge there. These moves set the table for Guatemala to scrap the CICIG with little outcry from Washington.

The 2020 election of Joe Biden brought a new foreign-policy discourse, yet until the 2023 election in Guatemala, the slide toward authoritarianism there met only a tepid and cautious U.S. response. Giammattei’s administration positioned itself as a U.S. partner in curtailing the numbers of northbound migrants seeking to cross Guatemala’s southern border. As its neighbors embraced greater partnership with China, Guatemala pleased Washington by being one of the only Latin American countries to maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Wielding the extra geopolitical leverage that these moves had brought, the criminal-oligarchic elite tested Washington’s commitment to the rule of law—and learned how to call the U.S. bluff.

Countering Authoritarianism Within the 2023 Elections

Given the ruling coalition’s power, how did an electoral process meant to deepen authoritarian rule and cement criminal oligarchy become an opportunity to resist backsliding? The opposition benefited from three things. First were the criminal oligarchy’s own mistakes and divisions, especially as these manifested themselves following the June 25 first round. Second came awareness and organization lingering from the earlier mobilization against corruption. The attempts at electoral interference roused these prodemocratic forces and gave them a message that resonated across class, ethnic, and ideological cleavages. Finally, there was the international community, which decisively backed those fighting to ensure that the popular will would prevail. The risks of international isolation for a small country such as Guatemala exacerbated the coordination problems that plagued the criminal-oligarchic coalition and thus galvanized Guatemalans fighting to revive democracy. Let us take these in order.

1) The criminal oligarchy’s blunders and coordination struggles

Arévalo’s surprise first-round showing left the criminal oligarchy groping for a unified response. As noted above, Guatemala’s criminaloligarchic coalition is far from cohesive but does have a history of [End Page 28] being able to close ranks when a threat looms. The exclusion from the first round of three outsider candidates who seemed serious contenders was an example of this.

Arévalo escaped this treatment because he was near the bottom in the polls and a relative unknown: Born in Uruguay to an exiled former president, he had grown up and spent much of his career outside Guatemala. Viewing his weak polling numbers, the criminal-oligarchic elite simply failed to take him seriously. Then, once he had flown under their radar and into the runoff, they ran into new and divisive dilemmas while trying to decide what to do about him. Establishment political figures and Giammattei’s MP wound up feuding with the TSE, their onetime vital partner in excluding antisystem candidates. Amid domestic outcry and in the international spotlight, the TSE stood by the integrity of the first-round vote and refused to violate election law by suspending Semilla. The Constitutional Court, another preelection meddler, affirmed the results and greenlit the runoff after ordering an audit that found only negligible errors in the vote tally.

Attempts at electoral interference also drove many members of the economic elite to step back from the criminal oligarchy; the reputational and economic fallout abroad from too blatant a subversion of democracy promised to be worse than the business community could bear. Following the first round, as rumors swirled that Giammattei would exploit the electoral tumult to stay in power, even the more conservative sectors of the business community insisted that the runoff proceed with the two top vote-getters. Prominent private-sector leaders had served on the vote-counting and auditing boards, drawing them into direct conflict with regime allies who were challenging the results. In short, groups that had marched in lockstep to roll back democratic institutions prior to the election were unable to bridge the divergent interests that emerged when the first-round outcome upended the political landscape.

The splintering of the authoritarian coalition was also driven by the hubris of a regime that had incurred few real consequences for its autocratic machinations. Whatever complaints at home and abroad had been sparked by the gutting of the rule of law, the choking of free expression, and the criminalization of opponents were nothing compared to what the Giammattei administration faced over signs that it might be seeking to nullify the election and cancel the runoff. Political elites went from overconfidence before the first round to a grim realization after it that their allies were deserting them while the price of altering the process and its outcome was rising. Research shows that blatant attempts to tamper with election results after the voting are riskier for autocrats than manipulations of the process (including candidate exclusions) that are done before ballots are cast.15 Guatemala’s regime would learn this lesson the hard way. [End Page 29] 

2) The legacies of the 2010s anticorruption mobilization

The outsider presidential victory of 2023 shows that the prior decade’s anticorruption movement has had longer legs than some may have expected. The CICIG-MP investigations of the 2010s laid bare the costs and deeply entrenched nature of state-based predation while bolstering anticorruption norms and confidence in the power of collective action. The investigations presented the powerful image of a Guatemalan state held hostage by the “Pact of the Corrupt”—an idea that entered the country’s vernacular and became a means of gauging where candidates stood in 2023.

The 2015 resignations (and later criminal convictions) of President Pérez Molina and Vice-President Roxana Baldetti also shored up Guatemalans’ collective confidence, underscoring that mass protest could disrupt the status quo. Attempts to overturn the first-round results and criminalize Semilla operatives spurred similar forms of outrage and mobilization. A July 2023 survey by CID-Gallup and the Freedom and Development Foundation found that nearly three-quarters of Guatemalans believed democracy was under threat and 56 percent were prepared to protest if the August runoff was suspended.16 These are impressive figures in a country where traumatic memories persist of wartime state repression against political opponents.

Semilla itself had begun in 2014 as an informal forum for discussing social, political, and economic challenges. The 2015 anticorruption drive brought it to the national stage and put it on the road to becoming a political party, complete with activists demonstrating in Guatemala City’s central square. After formal registration as a party in 2017, challenges remained of expanding beyond a mostly young, urban, and professional base into impoverished highland communities, and of coping with the tensions that any “big tent” political movement must manage. The first Semilla candidate for the presidency was Thelma Aldana, who while attorney-general had spearheaded the Pérez Molina investigation. In May 2019, however, a court disqualified her and by early 2020 she had received asylum in the United States. The 2019 election saw Semilla win a mere 5 percent of the vote, enough for seven seats in Congress.

But Semilla continued to push its prodemocratic message and to use all the institutional tools it could against the “Pact of the Corrupt.” Undaunted by the thinness of their numbers, Semilla’s deputies kept on denouncing government graft. Once in the runoff, Arévalo spread his campaign to rural areas, buoyed by polls suggesting that he was not far behind in districts outside Guatemala City and invoking his father’s legacy with promises of change. The democratic success of 2023 is difficult to imagine without the anticorruption “springtime,” however brief, of the 2010s.

3) International support

Although international support alone is insufficient to arrest democratic backsliding, in Guatemala it showed the [End Page 30] domestic opposition and election officials committed to upholding the constitutional order that the world was watching and stood on the side of the Guatemalan people. The criminal-oligarchic coalition, meanwhile, stewed anxiously as public agencies and private-sector elites alike began to peel away in response to the scrutiny. By widening cracks inside the ruling coalition, the international community laid the basis for a broad alliance reminiscent of the 2015 anticorruption movement.

The 2023 election had more international observers than any in Guatemalan history. Missions from the European Union and the Organization of American States (OAS) joined domestic observers in affirming the integrity of the results and condemning—quickly and emphatically—judicial and prosecutorial efforts to undermine the process and jeopardize the presidential runoff.

When authorities ordered vote audits and criminal investigations of Semilla and election officials, the observers did not let up. In early July, the OAS mission returned to Guatemala to observe the ballot-review process that the Constitutional Court had ordered. The OAS Permanent Council met on July 26 to discuss electoral manipulation and the intimidation of election authorities, a meeting that prompted OAS secretarygeneral Luis Almagro to visit Guatemala a few days later. Amid the looming threats, the OAS vowed to keep its delegation in-country until inauguration day (14 January 2024). The EU mission was similarly vocal and, in early August, monitored the MP’s extraction of digital voting records as part of investigations into the first-round results. This robust international-observer activity countered establishment narratives of malfeasance and made fraud charges hard to credit.

Governments across the Americas also denounced authorities’ attacks on election officials and attempts to subvert the electoral process. No voice was more significant than that of the United States. Despite their previous political caution, U.S. officials saw overt electoral interference as a bridge too far—if successful, it would place Guatemala among the ranks of Latin American autocracies such as Nicaragua and Venezuela. The U.S. State Department was thus quick to affirm the June 25 outcome, to defend election officials against mounting legal attacks, and to insist that the runoff proceed as planned. In a July 14 joint statement, the leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (a Republican and a Democrat, respectively) condemned the MP’s “blatant attempt to undermine the will of the Guatemalan people” and “circumvent the electoral certification.”17

Washington also issued targeted sanctions against the judge who had suspended Semilla and the prosecutor Cinthia Monterroso who had raided the TSE. These measures, taken under the United States–Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act of 2020, added to sanctions that had already been applied against the attorney-general and a senior prosecutor for undermining democracy and working to shield the impunity [End Page 31] that they were supposed to be fighting.18 While punitive steps such as these had made little impact in the past, the bipartisan origin and harsh tone of the condemnations sent a clear signal that U.S. officials saw the criminal oligarchy’s election-manipulation scheme as a grave authoritarian escalation that Washington could not tolerate.

The private-sector elites who oversee and profit from Central America’s largest economy, meanwhile, were worrying about the economic consequences of electoral theft. Growing international isolation and expanded U.S. sanctions spurred business leaders to counter government attacks on the electoral process. By word and deed, then, the international community changed the incentives of the criminal oligarchy’s allies, made its coordination problems worse, and gave prodemocratic forces an important edge.

Dangers Ahead

The ability of Guatemala’s citizens to counter electoral authoritarianism in the 2023 contest has been nothing short of remarkable. Against the odds, they have channeled broad feeling against the establishment into overwhelming support for the only prodemocratic option available, stirring hopes that it may indeed be possible to transform how politics is done.

The country remains far from recovering democratic governance, however, and a steep uphill battle now looms. The shock of the results fractured the criminal-oligarchic coalition, but the Arévalo administration and its reform agenda may provide the common enemy that the coalition can use to reconstitute itself. Officials within the MP have vowed to continue their weaponization of the legal system against the opponents of criminal oligarchy. The investigations into election officials and leaders of Semilla persist. The party might still be banned or (still more alarmingly) the president-elect might be stripped of his immunity from prosecution before he takes office.

Even if the transfer of power occurs, Arévalo’s ability to remake the rules of the political game and achieve his policy priorities will be severely hamstrung. Semilla will be third in Congress with 23 seats, but the parties of Giammattei and Torres will hold 67 in total. Together with smaller establishment groupings, they will have little problem disrupting Semilla’s agenda. Local-level political power also remains firmly in the hands of the authoritarian coalition. Giammattei’s party secured well over a third of mayoralties. National political changes did not necessarily trickle down to the local level, where clientelist machines remain powerful.

It is also important to note that Guatemalans’ efforts to resist democratic backsliding within the 2023 election do not necessarily mean that prodemocratic attitudes are widespread. In fact, opinion surveys suggest [End Page 32] that Guatemalans’ commitment to democratic norms and institutions is shaky at best. In 2021, only half of respondents told the Latin American Public Opinion Project that they saw democracy as the best form of government—a figure little changed from earlier administrations. Half also agreed that excessive corruption would justify a military coup, while 40 percent approved of executive rule without Congress during a crisis.19 These attitudes suggest that support for Arévalo was not a foregone conclusion, but more likely a product of circumstances. Had an authoritarian populist such as early poll leader Carlos Pineda been allowed to run, he might have broken through and won an electoral majority. But Pineda’s antiestablishment discourse and unreliability as an ally to the corrupt political class got him bumped from the race, opening a lane for Arévalo, whose prodemocracy, anticorruption agenda certainly poses more of a threat to the criminal-oligarchic system.

Moreover, there is no guarantee that Guatemala’s pronounced antisystem vote will be channeled into the democratic-institutionalist option next time around. The 2023 electoral process certainly illustrates the capacity and willingness of Guatemalans to mobilize when democracy is on the line. But in the likely event that Arévalo and Semilla are blocked from implementing their domestic agenda, the lack of progress could pave the way for a candidate reminiscent of Pineda or El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele—someone who can harness discontent, rise to power through elections, and then go about eviscerating democratic institutions.

Despite these obstacles, what can we learn from Guatemalan resistance within the 2023 electoral process? First, the Guatemalan case affirms recent findings regarding opposition strategies to arrest democratic backsliding. As Laura Gamboa recently argued in these pages, moderate, institutional strategies such as electioneering are more effective than extra-institutional, radical actions.20Semilla’s approach bolsters this claim. With the entire system against them, Arévalo and his half-dozen fellow Semilla deputies called out corruption repeatedly during the 2019–23 Congress. After surging into the presidential runoff and coming under judicial fire, they used legal channels to fight back while continuing to campaign for a different political future. This strategy not only expanded their base of support but helped undermine the fearmongering of their criminal-oligarchic rivals.

The Guatemalan case also highlights the importance of exploiting cracks in the authoritarian coalition and the role of international support in doing so. Although Guatemala’s criminal oligarchy and its allies have [End Page 33] always been plagued by some degree of fragmentation, they seemed to be marching in step before the election, pursuing antidemocratic actions that served their shared interests. Yet the unexpected outcome upended the political landscape and suddenly threw these interests into conflict. Domestic opposition forces and the international community stood by the electoral officials and other public authorities upholding the constitutional order. Concerns about the economic costs of expanded sanctions and international isolation also prompted the defection of private-sector elites. These dynamics proved crucial in exacerbating divisions within the authoritarian coalition, as the partners on whom the regime relied to curtail democracy increasingly distanced themselves. Although the criminal-oligarchic alliance may again find ways to regroup, the 2023 electoral process illustrates that seemingly broad-based, unified authoritarian coalitions are not immutable and that committed civil society and international actors can capitalize on authoritarian lapses to fight back. [End Page 34] 

Rachel A. Schwartz

Rachel A. Schwartz is assistant professor of international and area studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of Undermining the State from Within: The Institutional Legacies of Civil War in Central America (2023).

Anita Isaacs

Anita Isaacs is the Benjamin R. Collins Professor of Social Sciences at Haverford College.


2. Dan Slater, Ordering Power: Contentious Politics and Authoritarian Leviathans in Southeast Asia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, “Durable Authoritarianism,” in Orfeo Fioretos, Tulia G. Falleti, and Adam Sheingate, eds., Oxford Handbook of Historical Institutionalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

3. Kai M. Thaler and Eric Mosinger, “Nicaragua: Doubling Down on Dictatorship,” Journal of Democracy 33 (April 2022): 133–46; Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez, “Latin America Erupts: Millennial Authoritarianism in El Salvador,” Journal of Democracy 32 (July 2021): 19–32.

4. On these cases see Javier Corrales, “The Authoritarian Resurgence: Autocratic Legalism in Venezuela,” Journal of Democracy 26 (April 2015): 37–51; Santiago Anria, “Delegative Democracy Revisited: More Inclusion, Less Liberalism in Bolivia,” Journal of Democracy 27 (July 2016): 99–108.

5. Rodrigo Barrenechea and Alberto Vergara, “Peru: The Danger of Powerless Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 34 (April 2023): 77–89.

6. For more on oligarchy in contemporary Latin America, see Maxwell A. Cameron, “The Return of Oligarchy? Threats to Representative Democracy in Latin America,” Third World Quarterly 42, issue 4 (2021): 775–92.

7. Jeffrey A. Winters, Oligarchy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

8. As Maxwell A. Cameron argues, scholars of Latin American politics should now use the term “oligarchy” for more than just landed elites. We consider the role of political officials and criminals who become rich by illicit means.

9. Rachel A. Schwartz, Undermining the State from Within: The Institutional Legacies of Civil War in Central America(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2023).

11. Anita Isaacs and Rachel A. Schwartz, “Guatemala: The Military in Politics,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics(New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

15. Ora John Reuter and David Szakonyi, “Electoral Manipulation and Regime Support: Survey Evidence from Russia,” World Politics 73 (April 2021): 275–314; David Szakonyi, “Candidate Filtering: The Strategic Use of Electoral Manipulations in Russia,” British Journal of Politcial Science52 (April 2022): 649-70.

19. Mariana Rodríguez, ed., Cultura política de la democracia en Guatemala y en las Américas 2021: Tomándole el pulso de la democracia (Nashville: LAPOP, 2021): 81, 90.

20. Laura Gamboa, “How Oppositions Fight Back,” Journal of Democracy 34 (July 2023): 90–104.

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