Guatemala was the centre of a thriving Mayan civilisation but had gone into decline at the time the Spanish arrived and colonised the area in the early 1500s. The country became independent of the Spanish in 1821 but only became a separate republic in 1839.
There then followed a period where the country was ruled by landowners and business people before being controlled by a dictator, Justo Barrios between 1873 and 1885. After that period Guatemala was ruled by a series of authoritarian governments but did, for ten years, between 1944 and 1954 enjoy democratic government led first by José Arévelo and then by Jacobo Arbenz.
Arbenz was attracted by a Marxist system and, in 1954, was overthrown by a US inspired military coup. Since then there have been successful coups in 1957, 1963, 1982, and 1983.
During the period from 1954 to 1984 the country went through a period of extreme turmoil, insurgency and guerilla activity which led to the deaths of around 200,000 people.
Between 1984 and 1986 the military began a transition to elected rule and in 1985 introduced a new constitution which came in to effect in 1986. In the 1985 election Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo was elected president with 68.37% of the vote. He served until 1991 along with his Guatemalan Christian Democracy (DCG) party (in 2007 the DCG lost its status as a political party).
Jorge Antonio Serrano Elías was elected president in 1991 but his Movement of Action in Solidarity did not do so well, taking just 18 of the 116 seats in Congress. By 1993 Serrano was frustrated at not being able to carry out his policies and suspended the constitution, attempted to seize power and neutralize Congress. He failed and was forced to flee the country. In an indirect election conducted by Congress, Ramiro de León Carpio was elected president and served until 1996 when Serrano would have completed his term of office.
In 1995 fresh elections were held and Álvaro Enrique Arzú Yrigoyen was elected president with 51.2% of the vote. His National Advancement Party (PAN) became the largest party with 43 of the now 80 seats in congress. Arzú was able to negotiate a peace treaty with the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity Party (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca; URNG) which had been formed in 1982.
Nevertheless his party became increasingly unpopular and in 1999 Alfonso Antonio Portillo Cabrera was elected president with 68.31% of the vote. His party, the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) took 63 of the 113 seats. In 2004 it was the turn of Óscar José Rafael Berger Perdomo with 54.1% of the vote and his Grand National Alliance (GANA) which took 49 of 158 seats.
In 2007 Álvaro Colom Caballeros won with 52.82% of the vote. His National Unity of Hope (UNE) took 48 seats in the 158 seat Congress.
The President and Vice President are elected on one ballot to serve a four year term.
The unicameral Parliament or Congress of the Republic consists of 158 members elected to serve for four years partly through departmental constituencies and partly through proportional representation.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Guatemala at joint 136th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 28 (where 100 is least corrupt).