By Sofia Menchu
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) -The U.S., the European Union and other countries warned of a threat to democracy in Guatemala after a court suspended an anti-graft party whose candidate is bidding for the presidency and threatening to take on the political establishment.
On Thursday morning, prosecutors raided the electoral court’s citizen registry office in a probe into the Semilla party, which they allege has more than 5,000 illegally affiliated members, including 12 deceased people.
The suspension “threatens the basic foundations of democracy,” the EU observer mission in the Central American country said in a statement, noting that courts had used “dubious” legal means to interfere in the election.
Guatemala’s electoral tribunal, which this week ratified the June 25 first round results that put Semilla’s Bernardo Arevalo against former First Lady Sandra Torres in a run-off on Aug. 20, said it would fight judicial interference.
“If votes are not respected, there is no democracy,” the tribunal said in a statement.
Polls had shown Arevalo – an ex-diplomat and son of former President Juan Jose Arevalo – as a distant outsider ahead of the first round.
But his surprise second-place finish has led many analysts to believe he could capture the presidency.
Arevalo told reporters on Thursday he would challenge the move against Semilla, which he claims violates a Guatemalan law preventing political party suspensions during an election.
“We are in the electoral race, we are moving forward and we will not be stopped by this corrupt group,” he said.
Guatemala’s government said in a statement it would “maintain distance” from the judicial process and would respect the election winner declared by the electoral tribunal.
Arevalo’s presidential rival Torres urged the popular vote be respected and said she was suspending her campaign in solidarity with Semilla voters.
A group of international donors to Guatemala known as the G13, which include the U.S., Canada and Britain, endorsed the electoral tribunal’s findings and said it was deeply concerned about actions threatening the body’s authority.
Chile and Norway echoed concerns. Neighboring Mexico backed the tribunal’s ratification of the first round results.
The contest to succeed President Alejandro Giammattei, who by law cannot run again, has sparked international criticism after other opposition candidates were disqualified earlier in the process.
The controversy over the election, whose official results were delayed by allegations of irregularities brought by Semilla’s adversaries, has aggravated fears for democracy and justice in Guatemala.
Corruption allegations have dogged successive administrations, and the U.S. – Guatemala’s top trade partner and a key source of remittances – has repeatedly criticized what it views as efforts to impede a clean-up of government.
Semilla’s contender in the 2019 presidential election, former attorney general Thelma Aldana, was barred then too.
Aldana by then had a reputation as an anti-graft crusader and helped oust, prosecute and imprison conservative former President Otto Perez.
Arevalo said after the suspension his party was aware of a falsified signature and that Semilla itself in March reported the person responsible. However, the party was never allowed access to the case file, he said.
On Wednesday night, after the suspension, a senior U.S. official warned of a threat to democracy.
“We are deeply concerned by threats to Guatemala’s electoral democracy. Institutions must respect the will of voters,” Brian A. Nichols, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said on Twitter.
Prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche, whose anti-impunity office requested Semilla’s suspension, has previously targeted anti-graft campaigners and has been placed on the U.S. State Department’s Engel List for “corrupt and undemocratic actors.”