Guatemala, Central America’s largest nation, will vote on Sunday in presidential elections that are casting scrutiny on the erosion of the rule of law in a country that has become a major source of migration to the United States.
Guatemala’s nascent democracy — which emerged after the end of a civil war nearly four decades ago that left hundreds of thousands dead or missing, one of the bloodiest in recent Latin American history — has frayed in recent years under an increasingly authoritarian government.
The judiciary has been weaponized and has forced into exile dozens of prosecutors and judges focused on battling corruption. Press freedom has also come under attack, and this month, the publisher of a leading newspaper that exposed many episodes of graft was sentenced to six years in prison after being convicted of financial crimes.
The electoral authority in Guatemala, a country of 18 million, has added to concerns about assaults on democratic norms after it barred several top presidential candidates who were viewed as a threat to the political and economic establishment.
The tensions over Guatemala’s teetering democracy has left some voters disillusioned and wondering if they should even bother casting a ballot.
“I don’t think there should even be an election,” said Óscar Guillén, 70, explaining that he planned to leave his ballot blank to express his disenchantment.
Voters will still choose from a crowded field of more than 20 candidates, not one of whom is predicted to obtain a majority on Sunday, which would force a runoff on Aug. 20 between the top two finishers.
Runoffs have become common in Guatemala since peace accords in 1996 ended an internal conflict that lasted 36 years and was marked by brutal counterinsurgency tactics that resulted in genocide against Indigenous people.
Guatemala’s current president, Alejandro Giammattei, is barred by law from seeking re-election. But even though a sharp increase in violent crime and a punishingly high cost of living have made Mr. Giammattei, a conservative, deeply unpopular, the leading candidates in the race generally also lean conservative, suggesting continuity with the country’s political establishment.
Voting is not mandatory in Guatemala, and the abstention rate, which was nearly 40 percent in the last presidential election, in 2019, will be closely watched as a gauge of voter discontent.
Here’s what you need to know about the vote on Sunday.
Who is running?
Of the three leading candidates, no one is predicted to secure anything close to the majority needed to win outright on Sunday. Across several polls, Sandra Torres, a former first lady, appeared to be the top candidate, but with levels of support hovering around 20 percent. (The presidential candidate from Mr. Giammattei’s party is polling in the low single digits.)
Ms. Torres, 67, was married to Álvaro Colom, who was the president of Guatemala from 2008 to 2012 and who died this year at 71. They divorced in 2011, when Ms. Torres first tried to run for president and tried to circumvent a law prohibiting a president’s relatives from running for office.
She was still barred from running that year, but was the runner-up in the two most recent presidential elections. After the 2019 election, she was accused of campaign finance violations and spent time under house arrest.
Ms. Torres prevailed in that case late last year when a judge ruled that were was insufficient evidence to proceed to trial, allowing her to run again. On the campaign trail, she has been able to draw support from her party, National Unity of Hope, which is well established and widely known in Guatemala.
Ms. Torres, like her two main rivals, has expressed admiration for the crackdown on gangs by the government in neighboring El Salvador, which has helped drive down violence, but has also raised concerns about human rights abuses.
She has also promised to increase cash transfers and food assistance to poor families, building on her time as first lady when she was the face of those kinds of popular initiatives.
Another top challenger, Zury Ríos, 55, is also a familiar figure in Guatemalan politics. She is the daughter of Efraín Ríos Montt, a dictator in the early 1980s who was convicted in 2013 of genocide for trying to exterminate the Ixil, a Mayan people.
While the evidence against her father was meticulously documented and detailed at his trial, Ms. Ríos has claimed repeatedly that no genocide ever took place. Her ultraconservative party is led by figures with links to her father.
Still, while Ms. Ríos promotes her conservative credentials and evangelical Christian beliefs, she has a more nuanced record as a former member of Congress when she forged alliances in an effort to win legislative approval for bills aimed at improving conditions for women and L.G.T.B.Q. people.
Another main presidential contender is Edmond Mulet, 72, a lawyer and a seasoned former diplomat who has served as Guatemala’s ambassador to the United States and the European Union, as well as the head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.
While Mr. Mulet has highlighted his diplomatic experience, he is also known for his work as a lawyer in the 1980s, when he was arrested in connection to his work arranging adoptions of Guatemalan children by Canadian families.
Though he was quickly set free and Mr. Mulet has denied any wrongdoing, he has still spent time on the campaign trail having to explain his involvement in the episode.
In his campaign, Mr. Mulet is representing a newly formed party without any seats in Congress, but that has forged a competitive coalition of candidates at the national and local level in Sunday’s election. His proposals include a universal pension, increasing police salaries and building a new high-security prison.
What are the main issues?
Corruption: Guatemala won plaudits during the past decade for efforts to curb impunity and graft. But that initiative, led by a U.N.-backed panel of international investigators, was systematically dismantled in recent years as entrenched political and economic interests started hounding anticorruption judges and prosecutors from the country.
The exclusion of top candidates in the election reflects, civil liberty groups say, how elite figures are steadily reasserting their power.
Migration: Guatemalans rank among the fastest-growing groups of migrants in the United States. The number of those arriving annually has increased by about 33 percent from 2010 to 2021, from 830,000 to more than 1.1 million.
Various factors drive Guatemalans to emigrate, notably a lack of economic opportunity, with about 59 percent of the population living below the poverty line.
The United States made fighting corruption and shoring up democracy in Guatemala and other Central American countries a priority early in President Biden’s tenure, arguing that it would keep people from leaving their homelands.
But those efforts have done little to prevent a backsliding of democracy in the region or make a major dent in the flow of migrants.
Crime: A top theme throughout the campaign season in Guatemala has been calls to emulate the crackdown on gangs in El Salvador, pointing to the rising frustration with high levels of violent crime.
The number of homicides in Guatemala — fueled in part by powerful gangs — climbed nearly 6 percent in 2022 from the previous year, and there has also been a sharp increase in the number of murder victims who showed signs of torture. Many Guatemalans cite fears of extortion and crime as reasons to emigrate.