Voting center.

A voting center in Guatemala. (AP)

Explainer: Guatemala's 2023 Presidential Elections

By Carin Zissis and Chase Harrison

On June 25, voters will pick from a wide field of candidates to replace President Alejandro Giammattei. But some top contenders have been disqualified.

It’s been a rough time for Guatemalan democracy. News outlet elPeriódico, known for uncovering high-level corruption for more than a quarter-century, shuttered operations in May with its publisher trapped in prison for what are widely seen as trumped-up charges. In recent years, authorities have threatened or forced into exile dozens of prosecutors and judges, effectively undoing years of anti-corruption progress. Now, several of the country’s top presidential candidates are pitching hardline security policies in the style of neighboring El Salvador, where populist President Nayib Bukele’s protracted state of emergency has sparked to thousands of human rights complaints. In its latest annual Democracy Index, the Economist Intelligence Unit categorizes Guatemala as a hybrid regime—one step up from an authoritarian state. 

Faced with this scenario, Guatemala’s 9.4 million voters will pick a new president on June 25 at a time when they are increasingly pessimistic about their country’s future and disapprove of nearly all its institutions—including, notably, its electoral tribunal. Voters will also have to decipher crowded ballots with 22 presidential candidates and at least 30 political parties competing for all 160 deputy seats, as well as for 340 mayoral posts and councils. In the case of Congress, Guatemalans will elect parties, not direct candidates, for national-level seats and departmental seats.

Ahead of the first-round vote, which leaders will guatemaltecos choose to try to turn the outlook around? AS/COA Online covers the issues, the candidates, and the controversy over disqualified contenders.

Issues, voter perspectives, and electoral context

Some 83 percent of Guatemalans think the general situation of the country has worsened over the past three years, per a May 2023 Prensa Libre poll. Central America’s largest economy grew roughly 4 percent last year, but an estimated 55 percent of the population lives in poverty. As such, rural Guatemalans are most worried about the high cost of living. Meanwhile, urban dwellers, who make up just over half the population, are most concerned with insecurity amid rising homicide rates and entrenched organized crime

A mere 11 percent of Guatemalans approve of current President Alejandro Giammattei, who has been dogged by corruption allegations and whose government oversaw one of the slowest Covid-19 vaccination campaigns in the Americas. Giammattei, a 67-year-old conservative who previously served as a penitentiary system director, is constitutionally prevented from running for reelection.

If anti-incumbency is a trend in Latin America, Guatemala is a trendsetter: no political party has won consecutive presidencies since the 1996 peace accords saw the country’s return to democracy. Manuel Conde, the candidate for Giammattei’s Vamos party, polls at just 4 percent. In a country where the evangelical church is the most trusted institution, presidential winners have largely been conservatives. Moreover, no candidate has won in the first round during the nearly three-decade period. An August 20 runoff appears likely.

But before we learn who is competing, what about who isn’t? Voters will have to pick from nearly two dozen presidential candidates, but some key players won’t be on the ballots.

The controversy over disqualified candidates

In this election round, the country’s electoral tribunal, known as the TSE, has made several controversial rulings to suspend leading candidates. Early in this electoral period, the TSE iced the candidacies of indigenous leftist leader Thelma Cabrera and the right-wing son of a former president, Roberto Arzú. Human Rights Watch described the moves as “arbitrary exclusion of candidates.” 

But the decision to disqualify the frontrunner a month out from the election day made for particularly dramatic timing. 

On May 19, the TSE dampened Carlos Pineda’s presidential hopes when it suspended his candidacy. The ruling backed claims that Pineda and roughly 200 candidates from the conservative Citizen Prosperity (PC) party should be disqualified based on irregularities during their nomination process. The accusations were levied by Pineda’s former party, CAMBIO, which is controlled by the family of Manuel Baldizón, a former presidential candidate who served prison time in the United States for money laundering. 

Pineda’s suspension was framed as temporary, but he was running out of time for a reversal from constitutional court: ballots were slated to get printed on May 25. Then, on May 26, the court backed the TSE's decision. The constitutional court ruling cannot be appealed.

A 50-year-old business leader, Pineda pitched himself as an anti-corruption outsider and leveraged TikTok to rise above his rivals in Prensa Libre’s latest poll. As El País reports, he has expressed his esteem for Bukele’s security policy and, days before his disqualification, Pineda posted his trip to El Salvador “to witness a prosperous country where money isn’t stolen and there’s enough to go around.” 

But he wouldn’t have been Guatemala’s first outsider president. In 2016, comedian Jimmy Morales won amid a wave of discontent after an embezzlement case landed outgoing President Otto Pérez Molina behind bars. While Pineda has played the anti-establishment card, Guatemalan media outlet ConCriterio argued that he is the “non-politician who runs surrounded by the old guard.” 

Which candidate could attract his supporters? Pineda has attacked two of his fellow frontrunners, social democrat Sandra Torres and center-right Edmond Mulet. One would think this would benefit hardliner Zury Ríos. But a May CID-Gallup poll shows Mulet as the main benefactor, gaining 7 points and potentially making it to the runoff.

Sandra Torres
Sandra Torres
Sandra Torres

The runner-up in the prior two presidential elections, Torres, 67, is in her third official bid for the presidency. Torres is no stranger to the National Palace; she served as Guatemala’s first lady from 2008 to 2011 alongside President Álvaro Colom (2008–2012). The center-left Colom, who passed away in January, was Guatemala’s first leftist president in 50 years. The pair divorced in 2011 when Torres first sought to run for president, but her relationship with Colom resulted in the disqualification of her candidacy at the time anyway. 

Torres’ years in the political spotlight give her the highest name recognition in the race at 96 percent, though she also has the highest unfavorability levels, with more than a third of Guatemalans saying they would never vote for her. Still, she polled first, at 23 percent, in the latest CID-Gallup poll, picking up 3 points due to Pineda’s disqualification. 

Torres heads the National Unity of Hope, which is the country’s second-oldest party and has a broad national presence. She is centering her campaign around expanding Guatemala’s social programs, some of which she helped create while first lady. Torres has pledged to raise the value of conditional cash transfer programs, expand soup kitchen programs, fund educational projects and scholarships, and create a microcredit program aimed at women. Such programs have helped her win support in rural areas, where she is the leading candidate. On security, Torres has fallen in line with other candidates in recommending Bukele-style hardline policies.

Torres came in first in the first round of the 2019 election but lost the runoff to Giammattei by 15 points. Since then, she has faced charges of unregistered campaign financing and unlawful association for her 2015 electoral run. Though the criminal proceedings were closed in November 2022, Torres spent time in pre-trial detention and under house arrest

Edmond Mulet
Edmond Mulet
Edmond Mulet

A long-time diplomat and congressman, Edmond Mulet, 72, is running a campaign that seeks to highlight his experience and technocratic skills. He previously served as Guatemala’s ambassador to the European Union and the United States, in addition to leading UN bodies on chemical weapons, Haiti, and peacekeeping forces. His centrist platform includes proposals for a universal pension, the provision of free medicines, expanded access to the internet, and youth unemployment projects. He also has plans to shrink government and modernize its processes to reduce corruption. Unlike Torres and Ríos, Mulet comes from a small political party, Cabal, which holds no seats in Congress at this time.  

Per CID-Gallup, Mulet is polling in second with 21 percent of voter intention.  

A prosecutor has filed a complaint with the constitutional court to suspend Mulet's candidacy for obstruction of justice because he voiced opposition to legal persecution of prosecutors and journalists. At the time of publishing, the court had not ruled on that complaint.

Mulet first ran for president in 2019, finishing third

Zury Ríos
Zury Ríos
Zury Ríos

One more candidate making another go at a presidential bid is Zury Ríos, 55, the daughter of deceased ex-dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who presided over the

 Guatemala from 1982–83 and was convicted of committing genocide in 2013. 

Although Ríos Montt was not acquitted, the trial was overturned based on a technicality and he died at home in 2018 before a retrial was concluded.*  Ríos’ family relations ended her 2019 candidacy; she was disqualified due to a constitutional prohibition on relatives of coup leaders from running for president. However, after an Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling, Guatemala’s constitutional court has, thus far, allowed her 2023 candidacy to proceed.

During her time in Guatemala’s legislature from 1995 to 2012, Ríos pursued a right-wing agenda but diverged on issues dealing with women’s rights, supporting laws that cracked down on human trafficking and sexual violence, as well as providing resources to expectant mothers and those living with HIV. 

She, too, is pitching a Bukele-inspired security approach. The military, with which Ríos is associated, garners high levels of public support with approval levels of 68 percent.

Ríos is running as the candidate of the Valor party, which is led by many figures from her father’s circle, including members of his legal defense team from his trial for crimes against humanity. In the May CID-Gallup poll she sits in third place at 19 percent

Other candidates

There are 19 additional candidates running for president. In the CID-Gallup poll, four of them registered between 2 and 4 percent, including Conde (4%), former Mayor of Mixco Amílcar Rivera (2%), former Guatemalan Ambassador to Israel Manuel Villacorta (2%), and Congressman Armando Castillo (2%). The poll shows the remaining candidates having fewer than 2 points of support.

*Editor's note: A prior version of this article did not include information about the overturning of the 2013 Ríos Montt trial.

This article was originally published on May 25, 2023, and has since been updated to reflect the editor's note above, as well as the May 26 constitutional court ruling on the candidacy of Carlos Pineda.