Last month, Guatemalans went to the presidential runoff polls and elected former comedian Jimmy Morales in a landslide over former first lady Sandra Torres. Morales ran as an anticorruption candidate; his slogan, “not corrupt, not a thief,” says it all. Not being a thief might seem like a low bar for a presidential candidate, but Morales’s election shows that such qualifications are apparently and alarmingly sufficient in Guatemala. Despite never having held public office or having been involved much in politics as a private citizen (unless racism and cultural insensitivity count), Morales was a well-known and available outsider in the right place at the right time. Indeed, Morales seems to have gotten elected not despite but rather because of his lack of experience and prior political involvement—characteristics that were valuable assets against the backdrop of widespread public outcry against corruption in Guatemala over the last several months, culminating in the resignations and arrests of President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti in September.
Many hail Morales’s victory as an indication that the anticorruption movement reached a tipping point and created change in Guatemala. But there are at least three reasons to worry that far from an anticorruption success, electing Morales may be a setback or at least a non-event for anti-corruption and democracy in Guatemala.
- First, there is no indication that Morales’s anticorruption bite will match his bark. If Morales has a policy plan, as he claims, its contents remain largely unknown. His campaign manifesto is only six pages long. Overarching transparency concerns aside, it is perhaps most troubling that none Morales’s few known proposals—keeping drugs, abortion, and gay marriage illegal, giving cell phones to every child in Guatemala, ensuring teachers are in class through GPS tracking, and reclaiming neighboring Belize—relate to the central tenet of his campaign: fighting corruption. On that front, he has said just that the judiciary should be a focus and that he plans to renew CICIG (the UN-sponsored anti-corruption investigatory force behind Perez’s resignation) only until 2022, at which time Guatemala (somehow) will be able to tackle corruption on its own. Even if Morales had concrete, commendable anticorruption proposals, he would face an uphill battle in implementing them. Morales’s party won only 11 of 158 seats in Congress. Perez’s party won more seats even as Perez sat in jail. The parties of the other two chief contenders in the presidential race together hold the majority of seats. Regardless of his mandate from the Guatemalan public, the new president will have no choice but to work with his opponents, a reason to expect little change.
- Second, Morales’s election may signify a return to military rule made possible by anticorruption rhetoric. Ever since the end of the civil war, Guatemalan politics have occurred against a background concern of ensuring that civilians, not the military, rule the country. Former President Otto Perez’s election was a possible affront given that Perez is a former general who was in command over the rural areas of Guatemala in which some of the bloodiest massacres of the civil war took place. Indeed, Perez was the military’s representative in the peace talks that ended the conflict. The voters who put Morales into office thought of him as an outsider, the antithesis to Perez. But they may have overlooked an important similarity: the military connection. Morales has attempted to assuage this concern by publicly announcing that, unlike Perez (whose cabinet consisted of several ex-military officers), he will not appoint ex-military personnel to cabinet positions outside of defense. Yet this concession may not make a practical difference: If the president can be a puppet for his party, why not the cabinet he appoints? If the ex-military leaders of Morales’s party are going to have the real power, as seems likely, Morales’s presidency may not be as far a departure from Perez’s administration as voters may have hoped. One optimistic view of Perez’s election was that if military leaders wanted power in Guatemala, at least they had to get it through the democratic process. But Morales’s elections suggests that the military may have found a work-around—capitalizing on anticorruption sentiments to push an easy-to-manipulate outsider into the country’s top leadership role. Instead of being constrained by anticorruption rhetoric, military leaders found a way to appropriate it.
- Third, anti-corruption may have paved the way for continued racism and xenophobia in Guatemala. For a nationalist conservative outsider like Morales to run and win on an anticorruption platform is not unprecedented. Current Indian Prime Minister and Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi ran on a platform of good governance, and won despite whispers of his involvement in attempted genocide. Today, among other more positive developments, Modi’s party continues to fuel ethnic tensions, with adverse effects on reform and investment in India. As Katie pointed out in her recent post, anticorruption rhetoric similarly helped boost the current right-wing government of Hungary, known for xenophobia and anti-Semitism. These dynamics also shadow otherwise optimistic portrayals of the head of Russia’s political opposition, Alexei Nevalny. Perhaps the substantive link between anticorruption and prejudice against minority groups has to do with the positive spin on political incorrectness that accompanies an outsider candidate or (as Katie suggested in her post) the focus on cleanliness that a governance campaign entails. Either way, these concerns are especially salient in Guatemala in context of a genocidal civil war that spanned four decades and ended just 20 years ago. Eighty-three percent of the conflict’s 200,000 casualties at the hands of the Guatemalan military were of indigenous Mayan heritage. Indigenous communities still make up the majority of the Guatemalan population today. Morales has strong ties (to put it lightly) to the perpetrators of Guatemala’s genocide. As noted above, the same military leaders responsible for the civil war control Morales’s political party, and they created it precisely to strengthen impunity for military officers in the aftermath of the Guatemalan civil war. The new president himself has already demonstrated acquiescence to the party line, denying on numerous occasions that genocide ever occurred in Guatemala, despite the UN’s contrary conclusion. While it may seem unlikely that genocide will recur, racism remains a strong force in Guatemala today. As a comedian, Morales perpetuated (again, to put it lightly) negative stereotypes and inferiority associated with indigenous communities. Indeed, his election evidences the pervasiveness of racism in Guatemala, and he is unlikely to champion minority rights while in office.
The anticorruption movement in Guatemala today is strong, at least among the public and civil society groups. But public sentiment cannot and will not sustain progress without governmental support. If Morales is indeed a puppet of the military, with an interest in retaining their impunity for past and present malfeasance, Morales might use his considerable administrative power to stall the anticorruption momentum that remains. Perhaps the only antidote to these concerns is continued public and international scrutiny. When Perez was elected in 2011, questions abounded about whether he would continue to support CICIG, Guatemala’s independent, UN-sponsored anti-corruption body. Even when he must have known that supporting CICIG was not in his own self-interest—CICIG was ultimately responsible for the investigation that forced him to resign—Perez had to continue to extend its mandate in the face of international and public pressure. Morales may seem like an anticorruption ally, but such pressure and scrutiny will continue to be important during his administration so that he does not set back the fight against corruption in Guatemala.