Guatemala’s presidential election was thrown into turmoil Wednesday night after a top prosecutor moved to suspend the party of a surging anticorruption candidate, threatening his bid to take part in a runoff and potentially dealing a severe blow to the country’s already fraying democracy.
The move could prevent Bernardo Arévalo, a lawmaker who jolted Guatemala’s political class in June with a surprise showing propelling him in the Aug. 20 runoff, from competing against Sandra Torres, a former first lady.
Rafael Curruchiche, the prosecutor who mounted the case to suspend the party, has himself been listed among corrupt Central American officials by the United States for obstructing corruption inquiries.
The development places even greater stress on Guatemala’s political system, after the barring of several top presidential candidates who were viewed as threatening to the political and economic establishment, assaults on press freedom and the forced exile of dozens of prosecutors and judges focused on curbing corruption.
“They are stealing the election in broad daylight, using one of the very institutions which is supposed to protect us,” Gustavo Marroquín, a history professor and columnist, said on Twitter.
The prosecutor’s move fueled confusion and anger in Guatemala’s capital, where hundreds of people gathered in protest Wednesday shortly after Mr. Curruchiche’s announcement. The prosecutor took the action as Guatemala’s election authority was preparing to officially dismiss efforts to delay the runoff, allowing the vote to proceed as planned.
When asked by reporters about the prosecutor’s move against Mr. Arévalo’s party, Irma Elizabeth Palencia, the election authority’s leader, said, “It is definitely something that worries us.”
Brian Nichols, the top State Department official for the Western Hemisphere, said on Twitter that the United States government was “deeply concerned” by what he described as Mr. Curruchiche’s “threats to Guatemala’s electoral democracy.” “Institutions must respect the will of voters,” Mr. Nichols added.
Mr. Arévalo’s party can appeal the ruling, setting the stage for a legal battle and potentially sending the issue to Guatemala’s top constitutional court.
Mr. Curruchiche said the case against Mr. Arévalo’s party, called Semilla, or Seed, involved claims that it used fraudulent signatures to qualify as a political party. After his office looked into the case, a criminal judge ordered the suspension of Semilla’s registration, which could effectively prohibit the party, and Mr. Arévalo, from competing in the runoff.
Speaking on CNN en Español, Mr. Arévalo said he would proceed with his candidacy, contending that under Guatemalan law political parties cannot be suspended during an electoral process (the first round of voting took place on June 25 and the runoff is set for Aug. 20.)
“The powerful no longer want the people to freely decide their future, but we will defeat them,” Mr. Arévalo also said on Twitter on Wednesday night.
Legal experts questioned the move by Mr. Curruchiche, an ally of the outgoing president, Alejandro Giammattei. Edgar Ortiz Romero, a constitutional law expert, said the move was “absolutely illegal” since a criminal judge cannot suspend a party’s registration under Guatemalan election laws.
“This places us in the sad group of countries with advanced authoritarian features in which the legal system is used to attack opponents,” Mr. Ortiz Romero said.
The independent watchdog group Mirador Electoral said in a statement that the suspension “attempts to consummate an electoral coup equivalent to a coup d’état.”