On October 26, Jimmy Morales, an ex-comedian with no political background, was elected as Guatemala’s new president. Morales’ victory came as no surprise; a wave of popular support had positioned him as the electorate’s favorite in polls conducted during the presidential race. By presenting himself as a political outsider, Morales has gained support in a country where recent corruption scandals involving the office of the president have heavily damaged citizens’ faith in conventional or career politicians. With an overwhelming 72 percent of votes cast in his name, Morales’ legitimacy is unquestionable. While one might look with skepticism at his staggering vote share, the unusual turn in presidential politics does not suggest that Guatemalan political culture is dysfunctional – in fact, the voters’ behavior is perfectly understandable in light of recent developments in the country.
Morales’ election is a profound reflection of the public’s distrust of and disappointment in the country’s political system, long defined by rampant corruption. The election of a comedian-turned-president is merely the most recent demonstration of many Guatemalans’ skepticism towards their government, and comes after courageous efforts to battle the corrupt system.
Corrupted military and anti-corruption fighters
For many in Guatemala, daily life in recent years revolved around tiresome and generally unsuccessful attempts to rein in the country’s rampant political corruption. The widespread corruption is in no small part due to the strong, continued presence of the military in the nation’s democratic government – a legacy of the military regimes of the civil war era, which lasted from 1960 until 1996. A vast number of crimes committed by the military during the war have gone unprosecuted, as military personnel have constantly undermined efforts to fight impunity. Military efforts to obstruct justice have contributed to the environment of illegality that today stands as a key obstacle to reducing corruption in the country.
In an initial attempt to tackle corruption in the military and the state, the United Nations established the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala in 2007. The commission has aimed to increase the prosecution of crime and reduce corruption by conducting independent investigations (outside the purview of the state) and serving as a type of state consultant. This UN effort is unique in its kind, with no precedent in other countries. Most importantly, because Guatemala’s corruption has become so engrained within the state apparatus, the participation of non-state actors could be a decisive step towards triggering positive change.
Indeed, the UN effort has effectively promoted change within the government: in 2009, the Guatemalan Supreme Court established an independent court solely designed to try powerful individuals, known as the Court for High Risk Crime. Under the leadership of the influential general attorney Claudia Paz y Paz, Efrain Montt, Guatemala’s most notorious military dictator who ruled the country in 1982 and 1983, was found guilty of genocide against the country’s indigenous population during the years of war. However, in a disappointing yet unsurprising turn, the former dictator was found mentally incapable of serving his 80-year prison sentence. In the eyes of many Guatemalans, it seemed as if corruption had once more thwarted the rightful exercise of justice.
Guatemala’s spring in summer
The issue of Guatemala’s corruption has only gained importance as the country faces new waves of violence fueled by state authoritarianism, gang conflict, the proliferation of weapons, and widespread poverty. Many Guatemalans have rightly connected the outburst of violence to corruption, which has permitted the growth and expansion of drug trafficking with near impunity. The government’s poor response to serious social issues became apparent when, in the summer of 2014, the stream of migrant children from Guatemala and other Central American states to the United States border reached crisis proportions.
In April 2015, the UN’s International Commission against Impunity opened a corruption case implicating the already controversial Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina. According to the commission’s report, the president was involved in a network of corrupt dealings with the nation’s customs authorities, stealing millions of potential tax money. This scandal unleashed a series of massive protests calling for the president’s resignation, which became widespread enough to inspire similar demonstrations in the neighboring country of Honduras. This manifestation of public discontent in Guatemala and Honduras has raised high hopes of change in the region; many have dubbed the protests the “Central American Spring,” Latin America’s version of the massive public upheaval that rocked the Middle East four years ago. In the face of mounting political and public pressure, Molina resigned on September 2 of this year. He was arrested the following day. Guatemala’s long fight against corruption finally seems to be yielding positive outcomes.
The lesser of two evils?
As Molina left office to meet his fate, the Guatemalan electorate was called to vote. But a long summer of protests had left the public exhausted, and by the time of the presidential election in October, any sort of political momentum had largely faded away. During the month-long presidential race, only one out of a dozen candidates running for office garnered enough support to be profiled as a likely favorite: Jimmy Morales, the ex-comedian. By playing the outsider card, Morales promoted himself as an uncorrupted figure. Regardless, Guatemalan activists did not buy his brand of outsider activism, since they were aware of the candidate’s support from powerful ex-militaries. But for an important sector of Guatemalan society, Morales was the “least worst” of all possible options. The second most popular candidate, ex-First Lady Sandra Torres, had previously faced accusations of corruption and fared poorly in attempts to gain support from Guatemala’s masses. Ultimately, the citizens’ rejection of Guatemala’s political class became the key driver of Morales uncontested victory.
While the outcome of Guatemala’s most recent election does not necessarily herald a brighter future for the nation, placing the election in the broader context of the country’s longtime issues with corruption is necessary in order to understand the motivations of the Guatemalan electorate. Given Morales’ lack of political experience and his ties to the military, his ascendancy might have costly consequences in a country where violence is on the rise. Still, the nation’s strengthened civil society, experienced in its ongoing fight against corruption, will hopefully be able to pressure the new comedian-president to live up to his promise as a political outsider.