Gloom to Glee: The Media’s Narrative Shift on Guatemalan Elections, by Nicholas Virzi

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Coverage Flipped Once a Progressive Became the Favorite.

The media narrative on the 2023 Guatemalan elections underwent at least one significant transformation: from delegitimization of the electoral process to celebration of the electoral results.

Before the first-round elections were held on June 25, 2023, the general thrust of the media coverage was to delegitimize them—even before the electoral period had officially commenced.

However, the narrative changed suddenly and dramatically when Bernardo Arévalo of the progressive Semilla Movement tallied the second-highest vote percentage (11.78) in the presidential race. He was behind Sandra Torres of the UNE Party (15.68 percent), and null/blank votes (24.68 percent) were the highest recorded in Latin American elections since 2015.

These results would go on to be certified by the Guatemalan Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), paving the way for the runoff between Arévalo and Torres.

The Gloom: Election Delegitimization

Heading into the 2023 election season in Guatemala, there was a widely held assumption that the presidential contest would be dominated by the leading establishment candidates:

Zury Ríos (Valor–Unionista), a perennial favorite among Guatemalan conservatives;

Sandra Torres (UNE), the leading force among the traditional left in Guatemala;

Edmond Mulet (Cabal), a self-styled centrist.

Further, the widely held assumption was that Ríos and Torres would proceed to the runoff election and that Ríos would eventually win the presidency. That was the main reason for the gloomy framing of the Guatemalan elections.

In October 2022, El Faro published an article: “Who Will Inherit [President] Giammattei’s Power in Guatemala?” It disqualified the entire electoral process before it even began. This is just one example of the negative coverage that was widely repeated and continued until the day of the first-round elections on June 25, 2023.

According to the media chorus, Guatemala was a hopeless cause, a country governed by a shady “pacto de corruptos,” which ostensibly held hegemonic control of all aspects of the political and judicial system. This pacto is rarely defined. However, according to Epicentro—a progressive news source—it is made up of the executive, the legislature, and private-sector actors. This broad definition smears the private sector but leaves out the powerful drug lords. The definition also hints at the systemic bias that governs media coverage of Guatemalan politics.

On June 9, 2023, the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) published an article with the subtitle: “Guatemala’s June 25 elections are troubled by antidemocratic backsliding and dominated by traditional elites, raising questions about their legitimacy.” On June 22, the New York Times published a hit piece timed to discredit the elections. Similarly, just days before the first-round elections, the Carnegie Endowment predicted “farcical elections.”

On June 24, CNN published an article inaccurately stating that the candidacy of radical left-wing indigenous candidate Thelma Cabrera, of the MLP party, had been canceled by the TSE. This supposedly happened because she was an anticorruption candidate. This falsehood was propagated to discredit the elections that would occur the very next day.

Virtually all the polls supported the early presumption that the presidency would be contested among the leading candidates. Not a single poll showed Arévalo coming close to either of these three candidates. An important poll published just days before the first round of elections by an important newspaper in Guatemala (Prensa Libre), showed Arévalo in eighth place. Arévalo never polled above 2 percent.

On election day, the results stunned everyone. On July 12, Guatemala’s Prensa Libre reported that Arévalo had been declared by the TSE as having made it into the runoff election against Sandra Torres. He had the lowest vote share of any presidential candidate to make it into the runoff in Guatemalan history.

In the end, the runoff election would take place between two left-wing candidates: Torres of Socialist International, and Arévalo, whose party belongs to Progressive International. Still, the TSE sanctioning of these results was preceded by public communiqués from leading organized private-sector chambers signaling acceptance of the results. The media narrative was wrong.

The Glee: Election Celebration

Once it was clear that neither Mulet nor Ríos would be in the runoff, the media immediately began to celebrate the Guatemalan electoral process (read: El Faro, Al Jazeera, Reuters, Le Monde). Undeterred by their mistaken predictions regarding the first-round of elections, the chattering class rapidly converged on the prediction that Arévalo would handily beat Torres.

The second time around, they were right. As in 2015 and 2019, Torres lost the presidential runoff election. According to the TSE, Arévalo garnered 58 percent of the vote.

Progressive media uniformly coalesced around Arévalo as the representative of a political future untainted by the rampant corruption that Guatemalans of all social sectors have long rejected.

The Intercept: “The Promise of Spring.”

CNN: “Anticorruption candidate Bernardo Arévalo wins Guatemala’s presidential election.”

The Guardian: “Anticorruption campaigner wins Guatemala presidential election: Bernado Arévalo’s surprise victory comes at time of growing concern for state of democracy in Central America.”

Vox: “Anticorruption presidential candidate Bernardo Arévalo has heralded a new era for Guatemala.”

Delivering on Promises

Arévalo has assumed the presidency with high expectations and significant political capital. His challenge will be to condition and manage expectations. He has a relatively straightforward task before him: to make both symbolic and real advances against corruption. The bar is low, as all sectors of Guatemalan society want the plague of corruption to end.

Contrary to the media narrative, the organized private sector will support him on this issue. Long before the left took up the banner of anticorruption, the organized private sector—the chief source of tax revenue for the government—advocated for higher quality, accountable government.

This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily the views of the Impunity Observer.

The opinion of this article is foreign to Noticiero el Vigilante.

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