Mike Allison

Nearly two months after his surprising victory in the first round of Guatemala’s presidential elections, Jimmy Morales, a comedian-turned-politician, handily defeated former First Lady Sandra Torres in Sunday’s runoff, 67 percent to 33 percent. Approximately 54 percent of voters turned out for the second round, well below September’s first round contest. Morales will be at the helm of a country that hopes to turn the page on the disastrous four-year government of the discredited Otto Perez Molina. However, serious questions remain concerning the president-elect’s qualifications for the job, his political party’s connections to former military officials, and their plans to help Guatemala to overcome the overwhelming challenges that it confronts.

Over the last six months or so, thousands of Guatemalans have taken to the streets to denounce corruption in the former Patriotic Party (PP) administration headed by Otto Perez Molina and Roxana Baldetti. The extent of their corruption was laid bare by the tireless work of the Guatemalan attorney general’s office led by Thelma Aldana, and the United Nations-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) under the direction of Ivan Velasquez. 
The tax and customs scandals uncovered by the AG and CICIG came as election campaign season was well underway. Citizens rightfully interpreted the allegations against Perez and Baldetti as indicative of the entire political and economic class’s corruption, not simply that of the incumbent government. Judges, lawyers, bureaucrats, political appointees, and national and international businessmen were caught up in the multimillion dollar frauds perpetrated against the Guatemalan people. 

Morales capitalized on the citizenry’s rejection of the political status quo, managing to catapult from relative political obscurity to the presidential palace. Morales is an entrepreneur with degrees in business administration, theology, security studies, and mass media management. However, he is best known as a former comedian who made his living with offbeat, often low-brow, humor. He describes himself as a “Christian Nationalist” whose chief redeeming trait is that he is a political neophyte who is “Neither corrupt nor a thief.” 

Morales’ political inexperience rightfully worries Guatemalans as the country confronts significant political, economic, social, and security challenges. The political system is thoroughly corrupt. An April CICIG report alleged that over half of political party financing comes from corrupt sources, undermining both representation and accountability. While Guatemala will experience moderate economic growth once again this year, over 50 percent of the population still lives in poverty, including 13 percent in absolute poverty; higher percentages are found among the country’s rural and indigenous populations. 

Guatemala is also currently suffering the effects of drought, massive flooding, and crop disease such as coffee rust (roya). The consequences of these ecological crises was most horrifyingly illustrated by the deaths of approximately 600 people after a devastating landslide swept through Santa Catarina Pinula, but can also be seen in the alarming rates of malnutrition, a food crisis effecting nearly one million, and massive migration to the United States.

Jimmy Morales’ political inexperience should cause concern among the people of Guatemala. However, the challenges confronting Guatemala will not be for him alone to solve. There is, unfortunately, another problem. He is backed by the National Convergence Front (FCN) party. The FCN was established by veterans of the country’s vicious counterinsurgency campaign perpetrated against the rebels and the indigenous civilian population. Morales has tried to distance his campaign from these military officers who founded FCN. However, they contributed large sums of money to his campaign and some were even elected to represent the FCN in the next congress. 

Morales and these veterans deny that the Guatemalan military carried out a state policy of genocide during the country’s civil war which may hinder the already limited progress achieved by transitional justice advocates. In addition, continued interference into the judicial processes used to hold human rights violators accountable undermines not only the rights of the victims but the strengthening of the rule of law.

One of the problems in recent Guatemalan history consists in the criminal links between active and former military officials inside of government and out. Those officials work with other political officials and economic elites to further their own interests through actions that capture or weaken the state significantly. Those links caused the Guatemalan government to agree to the establishment of CICIG nearly one decade ago. The new charges against convicted criminal Byron Lima Oliva and the recent arrests of Perez Molina and other former military officials have begun to break down the criminal networks involving former military officials. Although he has committed to supporting CICIG’s continued operations in Guatemala, Morales’ victory will in all likelihood make continued progress on this front more difficult.   

The FCN will need to work with other political parties in the 158-seat congress after only capturing eleven seats in September’s election. In all likelihood, however, the FCN will pick up additional seats between now and the sitting of the new congress as Guatemalan legislators continue their well-worn tradition of switching from political parties in which they were originally elected to other parties that are better-positioned to allow them to further their professional interests. 

Even with a few additional congressmen, the FCN and Morales will still have to work with other political parties such as Manuel Baldizon’s Lider and the remnants of Perez Molina’s PP to advance their agenda. Morales has promised to improve government transparency, significantly reduce child malnutrition rates, extend CICIG’s mandate into the future, increase mining royalties but not taxes, and take stronger stances on the country’s territorial dispute with Belize and against absentee teachers. The details of Morales’ proposals and how he intends to finance and convince other political actors to support these initiatives remain unclear, at best. 

The Guatemalan government will continue to confront serious challenges in establishing the rule of law and improving the day-to-day lives of millions of its citizens. However, the instability brought on by criminal investigations undertaken by the attorney general’s office and CICIG that led to the resignations and arrests of the former president and vice president and the sustained mobilization of the people against corruption and politics as usual have kicked open the door to a potentially more just future. However, they will have to achieve convictions in open corruption cases and continue to pressure their elected officials to take democracy seriously over the next four years as it is not clear that the president, or those recently elected to congress, will do so on their own.

Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. He blogs at Central American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @centampolmike.