Elections in Ecuador and Guatemala: Four Takeaways

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Outsiders overperformed, underscoring the volatility of Latin American politics. Candidates calling to emulate El Salvador’s crackdown on crime did not do well.

A bespectacled Bernardo Arévalo stands in a doorway. A room with framed pictures on a red wall can be seen behind him.
In Guatemala, the progressive anti-graft crusader Bernardo Arévalo won in a landslide over a former first lady, dealing a blow to the conservative political establishment.Credit…Daniele Volpe for The New York Times

Ecuador and Guatemala held elections on Sunday that shed light on crucial trends throughout Latin America, including anticorruption drives, the growing importance of young voters and calls to emulate El Salvador’s crackdown on crime.

In Ecuador, where the assassination this month of the presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio cast a pall over campaigning, an establishment leftist, Luisa González, will head into a runoff against Daniel Noboa, the scion of a well-heeled family known for its banana empire.

And in Guatemala, the progressive anti-graft crusader Bernardo Arévalo won in a landslide over a former first lady, Sandra Torres, dealing a blow to the country’s conservative political establishment.

As concerns simmer over the erosion of the rule of law and the expanding sway of drug gangs in different parts of Latin America, the voting was watched closely for signs of what the outcomes could mean.

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President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador has cracked down on gang violence, using mass arrests that swept up thousands of innocent people. Credit…Brittainy Newman for The New York Times

Ecuador and Guatemala each face an array of different challenges, and while it is hard to overstate the difficulty of governing effectively in both countries, new leaders will grapple with getting organized crime under control and creating economic opportunities to keep their citizens at home instead of emigrating.

The star of the moment in Latin America’s political scene is El Salvador’s conservative populist president, Nayib Bukele, for his success in using hard-line tactics to quell gang violence, including mass arrests that swept up thousands of innocent people and the erosion of civil liberties. But expectations that enthusiasts for the Bukele gospel on crime would sail to victory fizzled in Ecuador and Guatemala.

“It is notable that in neither case did unabashed admirers of Nayib Bukele’s hard-line policies against criminal gangs in El Salvador fare well,” said Michael Shifter, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based research organization.

Despite the shock over the assassination of Mr. Villavicencio, explicitly anti-crime candidates in Ecuador split their share of the votes. Jan Topic, who aligned himself closely with Mr. Bukele, fared poorly despite climbing in the polls after the assassination.

“He did run a single-issue campaign that was very much focused around security,” Risa Grais-Targow, the Latin America director for Eurasia Group, said of Mr. Topic. “But voters have other concerns, including on the economy.”

Similarly, in Guatemala — where fears were growing of a slide toward authoritarian rule — Ms. Torres’s pledge to put in place Bukele-style policies failed to gain much traction. Instead, the former first lady was put on the defensive by her rival because she had spent time under house arrest in connection to charges of illicit campaign financing.

Also influencing the outcome: moves by Guatemala’s electoral authority to simply disqualify candidates who were viewed as threatening the established order.

One of the candidates pushed out of the race ahead of the first round in June was Carlos Pineda, an outsider seeking to replicate Mr. Bukele’s crackdown on crime. When Mr. Pineda and others were disqualified, that provided an opening for Mr. Arévalo, another outsider, even though his proposals to fight crime are more nuanced.

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Guatemalan candidates tried to capitalize on the support of young people.Credit…Daniele Volpe for The New York Times

To a notable degree, the electoral outcomes in Ecuador and Guatemala hinged on the choices of young voters. In Ecuador, Mr. Noboa, 35, a businessman and newcomer to politics, was polling in the doldrums just a few weeks ago.

But seizing on youth support while casting himself as an outsider, Mr. Noboa unexpectedly surged into the runoff with about 24 percent of the vote. (Name recognition may also have helped; his father, Álvaro Noboa, one of Ecuador’s richest men, ran unsuccessfully for president five times.)

In Guatemala, Central America’s most populous country, Mr. Arévalo, 64, also capitalized on the support of young people, especially in cities, who were drawn to his calls to end the political persecution of human rights activists, environmentalists, journalists, prosecutors and judges.

Mr. Arévalo also offered a more moderate stance on social issues. While saying he would not seek to legalize abortion or gay marriage, he made it clear that his government would not permit discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation.

That position, which is somewhat novel in Guatemala, stood in sharp contrast to that of Ms. Torres, who drafted an evangelical pastor as her running mate and used an anti-gay slur on the campaign trail to refer to Mr. Arévalo’s supporters.

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Luisa González will head into a runoff against Daniel Noboa in Ecuador.Credit…Johanna Alarcón for The New York Times

Guatemala and Ecuador offered sharply contrasting visions for the left in Latin America.

Indeed, within Guatemala’s traditionally conservative political landscape, Mr. Arévalo, who criticizes leftist governments like Nicaragua’s, is often described as a progressive. In that sense, he is more like Gabriel Boric, Chile’s moderate young president, than firebrands elsewhere in the region.

Mr. Arévalo’s party, Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement), which coalesced after anticorruption protests in 2015, is also unlike any other party in Guatemala in recent decades. Semilla gained attention for running a principled and austere campaign, making its funding sources clear, in contrast to the opaque financing prevailing in other parties. Another source of inspiration for Semilla is Uruguay’s Frente Amplio (Broad Front), a moderate, democratic left-of-center party.

“Arévalo is a democrat through and through,” said Will Freeman, a fellow in Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Ms. González, by contrast, hails from a different part of the Latin American left, characterized in Ecuador’s case by testing democratic checks and balances, Mr. Freeman said. She is a supporter of Rafael Correa, a former Ecuadorean president who remains a dominant force in the country’s politics despite being out of power for six years.

Mr. Correa, who lives in Belgium after fleeing an eight-year prison sentence for campaign-finance violations, retains a strong base that oscillates between 20 percent and 30 percent of the electorate.

That support is largely a result of the “nostalgia for that moment of well-being that existed during the Correa era,” said Caroline Ávila, a political analyst in Ecuador.

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Mr. Arévalo got more votes than any other candidate in Guatemala since democracy was restored in the country in 1985.Credit…Daniele Volpe for The New York Times

The races in both Ecuador and Guatemala highlighted a wider regional trend: the uncertainty and volatility of Latin America’s politics.

Polls in both countries failed to capture crucial developments. In Ecuador, where Mr. Topic was seen capitalizing on the aftermath of the Villavicencio assassination, Mr. Noboa swooped in to make it to the runoff.

And in Guatemala, Mr. Arévalo, a professorial candidate who sometimes reads his speeches and lacks the oratory skills of his rivals, was viewed as nonthreatening by the establishment — until he squeaked into the runoff.

Now, with his landslide win, Mr. Arévalo got more votes than any other candidate since democracy was restored in Guatemala in 1985.

That’s a scenario that even many within Mr. Arévalo’s own party did not see coming.

Simon Romero and Jody García reported from Guatemala City, and Genevieve Glatsky from Bogotá, Colombia.

Simon Romero is a correspondent in Mexico City, covering Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. He has served as The Times’s Brazil bureau chief, Andean bureau chief and international energy correspondent. More about Simon Romero

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