• July 28, 2023

Democracy at risk: Guatemala and Sierra Leone – International weight is needed to help defend the people’s votes – Op ed

Democracy at risk: Guatemala and Sierra Leone – International weight is needed to help defend the people’s votes – Op ed
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By Patrick Merloe

Held a day apart, elections in two widely differing countries illustrate the struggle for genuine elections versus entrenched elites seeking to impose their will over the people’s choices.

Guatemala’s June 25 election saw reformer Bernardo Arévalo come in second, earning a surprise place in the August 20 presidential runoff against former First Lady Sandra Torres. The credibility of that result was confirmed by nonpartisan citizen and international election observers, including through a sophisticated results verification conducted by the citizen group Misión de Observación Electoral – Guatemala (MOE-Gt).

Nonetheless, the Constitutional Court at the behest of nine political parties delayed the Supreme Election Tribunal (TSE) from announcing official electoral results. Citizens, observers and diplomats spoke out, and the Supreme Court of Justice backed the TSE’s power to confirm the outcome.

However, a prosecutor, who is on a corruption list developed by the U.S., then obtained a criminal court order to suspend Arévalo’s party (Movimiento Semilla – Seed Movement), thus denying him a runoff spot.

The TSE refused the order because it runs counter to Guatemalan law, and the Constitutional Court backed the TSE when it ruled in favor of Arévalo’s party. Even Torres protested the prosecutor’s attempt to effectively stop the runoff, but he raided the TSE and is continuing his investigation.

More machinations may be coming. The U.S. State Department has engaged along the way, including spokesperson Mathew Miller’s July 14 statement that ended: “The will of the Guatemalan people, as expressed through the June 25 elections results, must be respected.” The full test of whether the will of the people is to be respected is yet to come – in the fairness of the contest and honoring the people’s vote on August 20 – whatever presidential candidate they choose. That test merits focused international concern.

Serra Leone’s June 24 election does not provide as hopeful a story. One hour after the official results  stated that the incumbent Julius Maada Bio had narrowly avoided – by 01.17% – a runoff with Samura Kamara, Bio was sworn in for a second 5-year term.

The official results process was not transparent, and citizen and international observers have cast doubt on the outcome’s credibility. That includes a sophisticated results verification process like the one conducted in Guatemala, which was executed by Sierra Leone’s National Election Watch (NEW), a well-respected nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization.

NEW stated flatly that “official results announced for the presidential election do not align with the true ballots cast at polling stations…” That is an absolutely rare finding in election observation, and unfortunately unlike Guatemala there does not seem to be active recourse to the courts.

Samura Kamara rejected the outcome, election observers are calling for the Election Commission of Sierra Leone (ECSL) to release the results posted at each polling station so all can see if the official result was genuine. More than three weeks have passed since June 24, but the ECSL has yet to do that, which fuels suspicions that the results were rigged to avoid a runoff.

The U.S. State Department’s Matthew Miller weighed in with a release on July 14, noting the findings by national and international observers and calling for “an independent, outside investigation of the election process….”

The Department expressed continuing concern three days later about irregularities in the election results and threats against election observers and workers. In a country not long ago beset by a devastating civil war the stakes for resolving the present crisis are high, and the only way to resolve it is to honor the people’s will as to who should be their President.

The international community should use its good offices to help Sierra Leonians bring that about, just it should help ensure that the people’s choice is honored in Guatemala. We all should be watching and calling for honoring the people’s will. That’s especially true for democratic governments and intergovernmental organizations. The US should strongly encourage the OAS, EU, AU, and ECOWAS, respectively, to weigh in for democracy in these countries. Much is at stake in each of them and their volatile regions.

About Patrick Merloe

Patrick Merloe has observed elections in more than 60 countries on five continents. He has produced over a dozen publications on democratic elections, human rights and international law, and was a lead negotiator of the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation. He is a member of the Kofi Annan Foundation’s Electoral Integrity Initiative and the Advisory Council of the [US] Electoral Reformers Network. From 1993-2022 he led the election observation programs at the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and now consults with the Institute and others as a strategic advisor.

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