What happens when a country elects a media personality from outside the political establishment, with little political experience and few supporters in Congress? In late 2015 Guatemalan voters chose as their president Jimmy Morales, a former TV comedian. His unlikely political rise was enabled by a political crisis that rocked the Central American country a few months before election day that led to the resignation of the president, vice-president and several high level government officials.
Winning more than 60 percent of the vote, Morales defeated a former first lady by touting his outsider background. Promoting himself as a non-politician, the former comedian promised a departure from the traditional corrupt political culture that characterized Guatemala for decades. But his outsider status came at a cost: his quickly cobbled together party, the FCN-Nación, won only 11 seats in Congress and only a handful of mayors’ offices.
Two months into Morales’s presidency, the evidence so far is that the lack of political experience has led him to rely on questionable allies and make decisions with little input. While two months might be a short time to evaluate the extent to which the new administration can change politics and a political culture and promote substantive reforms, the actions so far have been disappointing. Some missteps and the reluctance to make tough decisions may point to Morales’ lack of experience and political skills. But the absence of transparency and accountability and the cronyism evident already in his government point to a more troubling governing style.
One of the main problems facing Morales was the lack of support among members of Congress. Traditionally, the president’s party has used government resources to entice congressmen from other political parties to change party affiliation to boost executive support in the legislature. The practice has been widely condemned by civil society because it creates significant incentives for corruption and weakens the authority of political parties and the legislature.
During the election campaign Morales promised that he would not rely on party switchers to increase his support in the legislature. However, shortly after the president was inaugurated, his party set about to “persuade” deputies to change affiliation. Their “persuasion” was so effective that it increased the party’s legislative representation from 11 to 31, giving it a plurality in the Congress. But the President denied any complicity in the logrolling, blaming his party leaders—stretching his credulity to observers.
Another serious concern has been the advisors and close collaborators surrounding Morales. During the election campaign many observers pointed to the links between the FCN-Nación and retired hardline military officers linked to human rights abuses during the brutal civil war of the 1980s. Several of those officers were elected to Congress. For example, Edgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado, a retired colonel, serves as the party’s general secretary and head of its congressional caucus. Prosecutors have formally requested the equivalent of impeachment proceedings against Ovalle Maldonado as part of a wider probe of human rights abuses by military officers during the country’s civil war. Additionally, Morales has been criticized for the lack of transparency in naming his cabinet and for choosing individuals linked to the government of ousted president Otto Pérez Molina or to traditional economic elites—despite campaigning as an outsider who was going to break with corrupt, nepotistic politics as usual.
More recently, the selection of the 22 provincial governors and the new members of the Supreme Court has come under fire for the same reasons. Several of the governors have been linked to manipulation of public contracts and influence peddling, and the appointments for all were made with little consultation with stakeholders or civil society. All of these issues point to an administration that, far from promoting a new way of doing politics, is doubling down on the old way.
The success of the Morales administration is not only important to Guatemalans but essential to U.S. interests in Central America. The U.S. was instrumental in the ouster of President Otto Pérez Molina. U.S. support for the work of the CICIG—the UN mandated investigatory commission—permitted the investigation that revealed the corruption scandals that led to Pérez Molina’s ouster. Later, in the midst of the popular protests against Pérez Molina, the United States expressed support for civil society and for the legal process that led to the resignation of the president. Many interpreted the statement as not just a condemnation of the then-president, but also as a sign of disapproval of the whole political elite, including opposition politicians. Then, as if to give a final blessing to the outcome, Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Guatemala for Morales’ inauguration and pledged full support to the new government.
The events in Guatemala unfolded as the U.S. Congress debated a $1 billion request from the White House to provide assistance to three countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. That request was eventually whittled down to $750 million and approved by the Congress. A significant boost to the U.S.’s Alliance for Prosperity development assistance program, the new funding is contingent on these countries taking serious steps to combat corruption, protect human rights, and promote institutional transparency and accountability.
Most presidents are given a honeymoon period to launch their legislative initiatives and begin governing. While Jimmy Morales retains relatively high approval ratings, the popular frustration and political crisis that led to his election indicate that he may well have a short leash. The revelations and protests of 2015 emboldened civil society to believe that popular mobilization could affect positive political change. Since Morales’ inauguration, those civil society groups have remained attentive and engaged. What they will do next is anyone’s guess, but it’s clear they are waiting in the wings. They may not stay there for long.
Democracy in Guatemala was strengthened by the popular protests that mobilized thousands of people to demand greater transparency and accountability from those who govern the country. Jimmy Morales rode the wave of their anger and awakening to power by promising to harness their energy and his outsider status to promote change. So far, though, his lack of experience and reliance on traditional clientelistic practices and dubious collaborators has left many Guatemalans disappointed and weakened the prospects for long-term, sustainable democratic change.
Orlando J. Pérez is Associate Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Civil-Military Relations in Post-Conflict Societies: Transforming the Role of the Military in Central America (Routledge, 2015).