Guatemalan Election: Vote of Rejection, not Affirmation

Guillermo Herrera, JHU:

At face value, discovering that a comedian won Guatemala’s presidential election would seem almost fictitious. As Reuters would describe it, however, this shocking victory was indeed “no joke.” On October 25, Jimmy Morales, 46, was declared president after receiving nearly 70 percent of the runoff vote with zero political experience. Although Morales won the initial election as well, a majority was required to bypass the runoff vote. Prior to campaigning, he thrived in the comedy business for 16 years in a number of television programs. Morales’ unqualified background begs the question: why would the Guatemalan people elect such an individual?

In order to address this, one first has to consider that Morales’ victory was largely due to the people’s rejection of his electoral rivals and the incompetent political regime they represented rather than his personal qualities. Guatemala has one of the highest homicide rates in the world due to its widespread levels of common and organized crime. According to Human Rights Watch, violent crimes had a staggering impunity level of 99.75 percent in 2009. The extensive corruption plaguing the small country has severely restrained the effectiveness of the criminal justice system. To ameliorate this, the United Nations intervened in 2006 and created the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an unprecedented organization tasked with uncovering illegal activities involving the government.

The CICIG is being hailed as a beneficial arm in the struggle for political honesty, especially because of its crucial involvement in the recent arrest of former president, Otto Perez Molina, and vice president, Roxana Baldetti, who both partook in a massive corruption scandal. The joint efforts of the CICIG and Guatemala’s Public Ministry revealed that government officials were accepting bribes from importers in exchange for lower tariffs. Ironically, Molina had campaigned under an anti-crime platform, capturing the shameless deceit of politicians. Following its unveiling, “The Line,” as the corruption racket was labeled, prompted the fervent protests of approximately a hundred thousand Guatemalans in front of the National Palace. The sweeping outcry against Molina was emblematic of the people’s profound frustrations with the status quo.

Jimmy Morales capitalized on public sentiments by running as a clean centrist. His campaign slogan, “Ni corrupto, ni ladron,” (neither corrupt nor a thief) resonated with the masses who were tired of being cheated by the existing political regime. Back in April, polls revealed that Molina possessed the paltry backing of less than 1 percent of voters. Once the government became embroiled in corruption probes during the summer, however, he rapidly garnered popularity. His campaign opponents, in contrast, declined in prominence.

Frontrunner Manuel Baldizon, for example, dropped out of the race after coming in a close third at the end of the first vote on the supposed grounds of illegitimacy. Despite the official excuse, Baldizon likely dropped as a consequence of the controversy that surrounded his campaign. Throughout his political career, he has been rumored to receive illegal campaign donations from criminal networks. Additionally, his vice-presidential candidate, Edgar Baltazar Barquin, was charged in July with money laundering and fraud ring involvement. Rival Sandra Torres, who faced Molina in the run off and was the former first lady to ex-president Alvaro Colom during 2008 to 2012, also struggled throughout the race. In spite of her substantial social work and acclaim among women and the poor, her affiliations with the crooked power establishment led to her downfall. Her reputation was tarnished by the embezzlement accusations against her relatives and the investigation of her party, National Unity of Hope, for illicit campaign financing in 2007. Besides leading to Molina’s removal, The Line also damaged Morales’ rivals because it spurred on voter aversion to career politicians.

This is not to imply that Morales has been free of controversy, though. His National Convergence Front (FCN) party has received heavy criticism because it was largely founded by retired army officers from the bloody civil war of 1960. Over the course of three decades, about 200,000 people perished, mostly as a result of the military’s brutality. Morales has tried to downplay the issue by claiming that most military ties are gone even though 3 of FCN’s 11 newly-elected legislators are in fact retired officers. Additionally, he has been condemned as a racist, homophobe, and sexist because of some questionably humorous content he has produced. In Black Pitaya, for instance, he played a blackface character who made self-deprecating jokes. Morales has defensively stated that Black Pitaya is enjoyed by Guatemala’s blacks. Pundits have also casted serious doubt on Morales’ presidential potential due to his inexperience. Morales was particularly ridiculed for asserting that teachers should wear GPS tags to ensure that they attend class and for proposing to give all children smartphones.

The fact that voters were willing to overlook Morales’ activities is a testament to their vehement rejection of the old political regime after years of corruption. The people were so fed up that it mattered much less whether he was a neophyte, bigot, or war affiliate. Clearly, Morales is not as clean as he claims, but that is not the point. The point is that he is “clean enough” to not have obvious ties to the old system. As unideal as he is, Jimmy Morales is Guatemala’s fresh start. More importantly, though, he is a symbol of Guatemala’s profound commitment to fighting corruption. “With this vote I received a mandate,” proclaimed Morales on video after winning, “and the mandate from the people of Guatemala is to fight against the corruption that has consumed us.” One can only hope that Morales is more genuine than his predecessor.

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