Field Report: Guatemala’s June 16 General Elections

  • Andrea Castillo, Laura Boyette, Danielle Turner

This Sunday, June 16, Guatemalans head to the polls to vote for every elected office in the country. During the campaign period, many candidates have been disqualified as 2016 reforms are enforced for the first time, generating uncertainty and confusion, threatening to jeopardize voter turnout and confidence in the process, and even contributing to conflict on election day. Even so, IRI’s programs address these challenges by engaging youth on the importance of the elections, promoting comprehensive reporting through training investigative journalists, and supporting civil society in encouraging a culture of peace on election day.

A Days before Guatemala’s elections, voters are frustrated by a scarcity of accurate and transparent information about the electoral process, by a lack of concrete policy proposals from candidates, and by ongoing corruption at national and local levels that bleeds the country of its resources. This sense of frustration we’ve observed on the ground is backed up by polling. The Latin America Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) estimates that only 31.6 percent of Guatemalans have confidence in the country’s elections. A poll released by CID-Gallup and the Liberty and Development Foundation (Fundación Libertad y Desarrollo) on June 12 showed that 9.1 percent of Guatemalans were planning to nullify their vote and 13.6 percent intended to cast blank ballots on the presidential ticket.

Youth under the age of 24 represent over half of the population in Guatemala but have been historically apathetic towards participation in politics. To increase youth participation and involvement in politics, IRI’s project “Youth Beyond Elections” has brought leaders from rural areas and trained them on political participation and processes, with a component aimed at stopping disinformation around the 2019 electoral process. As a result, youth are more motivated to participate in politics and have developed regional priorities to guide their future participation in politics.

This electoral process demonstrates a common issue around the world among young democracies: the need for political parties to increase participation among youth to be more representative and to promote more issue-based proposals. Recent scandals involving presidential candidates have only generated more frustration among voters who don’t feel represented.

For months, IRI’s Generation in Action has worked with youth from 15 political parties. Youth have acquired the tools to advocate for their generation’s priorities and become leaders in their political parties. Encouraging new ideas that are representative of a broader audience within Guatemala’s political parties could set the ground for more representative and citizen-responsive political parties. Through IRI’s work, we have also connected youth from political parties with those from more rural areas of the country, co-developing proposals for Guatemala’s future.

One major frustration of Guatemalans during this campaign period has been the lack of reliable information on the electoral process, particularly at the local level. IRI has responded by working with Laboratorio de Medios and the University of San Carlos de Guatemala to train journalists from the interior of the country on investigative journalism—how to investigate, audit and effectively monitor public institutions. Through this program, journalists who lack formal training have learned how to use technical investigative tools, best practices in research, and how to strengthen the quality of their writing and reporting.

IRI has also trained journalists on the media’s role as an early warning of growing trends in community and electoral violence so that government authorities and regular citizens can respond, mitigate and prevent violence. As a result, citizens across Guatemala have had access to more reliable information about the electoral process at the local level.

Guatemalans cannot confidently say who will be on the ballot this Sunday, as the field has sporadically shrunk as election day has neared, with candidates being eliminated for reasons ranging from technical errors to criminal charges. The electoral commission (Tribunal Supremo Electoral, or TSE) has been working non-stop since the electoral period opened January 17, but with the frequent changes on who might be eligible to run for office in all contests, there was doubt that they would even be able to print the ballots in time. In Guatemala, the TSE is responsible not only for administering the elections, but also arbitrating electoral disputes—such as who is legally and technically eligible to run. With a new elections and political parties reform being tested for the first time since reforms passed in 2016, the TSE has been overwhelmed with work. 

Watchers are concerned that this uncertainty could spark unrest. IRI’s team has worked to promote a culture of peace among public officials, civil society organizations and marginalized groups by helping them identify, prevent, mitigate and report electoral violence. In partnership with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the Human Rights Ombudsman and the Presidential Commission for the Coordination of Human Rights Policy in Guatemala, IRI has worked in five regions with historically high levels of electoral violence to train community members to identify, respond to and mitigate electoral violence. As a result, on the day of the election, law enforcement, human rights workers, municipal officials and other community members will have the skills to respond to and resolve any potential incidents of electoral violence.  

IRI is on the ground this week, alongside IFES and NDI, to accompany this process. We’re looking out for a few things – namely how Guatemalans deal with a whirlwind campaign that at times seemed more like a season of Survivor than an electoral process, and how youth are stepping up in these uncertain times.

Guatemala is a young country—not only is it a young democracy, having only transitioned in the 1980s, it also has the youngest population in Latin America. The decisions that voters make this Sunday will have lasting repercussions for years to come as the country confronts issues of corruption, few economic opportunities and insecurity.  

Up ArrowTop