As expected, Jimmy Morales, a TV comedian and occasional movie actor with no prior experience in politics, will be Guatemala’s next president. Morales defeated former first lady, Sandra Torres, by 35 points in an uninspiring election that left many questions about what he will do as president. At 56 percent, turnout, while lower than in the first round and about 4 percent less than in 2011, was surprisingly robust for a campaign in which the outcome was foreseen by most polls.
With the inexperienced Morales, a fragmented congress, a mobilized street, and shady military connections behind the new governing party, nothing seems clear, even the president’s mandate.
Morales rode a wave of popular discontent with the political establishment fueled by a corruption scandal that swept former president, Otto Pérez Molina, from office. Morales’ simple slogan “not corrupt, not a thief” resonated with a population tired of systemic corruption and a history of economic, military and political elites colluding with criminal networks to control large sectors of the economy and manipulate government resources for private gain. The scandal that brought down President Pérez Molina awakened civil society in a way never before seen in the Central American nation.
This popular mobilization poses challenges and opportunities for the next president. On the one hand, civil society will demand transparency and accountability from the future government, and will no doubt remain vigilant to make sure reforms are implemented. On the other hand, it is not clear whether Morales has the skills and knowledge to tackle the challenges facing Guatemala in the next four years. While his political inexperience was a significant asset in running for president, it could pose a liability to effective policymaking.
Morales’ victory was impressive but very lonely. His party elected only 11 legislators out of 158. The elections resulted in a highly fragmented Congress in which no single party will have a majority, and in which coalitions will be necessary to pass any legislation. Nevertheless, Morales’s landslide victory will give him authority to attract congressional support, and he will likely take advantage of the common practice of legislators switching parties. But those legislators will exact a price for their support—as is common—in the form of patronage and government contracts. Such deals might erode the president’s clean image and attract opposition from civil society.
More troubling than his lack of experience or majority in Congress are the links between his party, the FCN-Nación (Frente de Convergencia Nacional), and retired military officers. The FCN was founded by members of AVEMILGUA (Asociación de Veteranos Militares de Guatemala). AVEMILGUA was founded in the 1990s by retired military officers who opposed many of the “concessions” made by the civilian governments in the process of agreeing to the Peace Accords that ended Guatemala’s brutal civil war. These officers, many from the intelligence sector, have been linked to human rights abuses during the civil war and to criminal networks, such as La Cofradía, in the years after the war. Additionally, some of these military officers were supportive of Otto Pérez Molina and his party, and served in his administration.
Jimmy Morales has argued that retired military officers no longer have influence in the FCN, but 4 of the 11 legislators elected from the party are retired military and the top of the party’s congressional list was a retired military officer with troubling links to army units suspected of human rights abuses. The success of the new administration will depend on whether Morales can be his own man and move beyond these backers. Morales’s landslide victory does provide him with the ability to move beyond his party because it is clear his win was entirely a product of his personality and charisma and not the party. Whether he can mold his party, and other political forces, to his will remains an open question.
The good news about the military is that despite concerns over the influence of retired military officers behind Morales and their links to criminal networks, the institutional armed forces seem prepared to abide by constitutional norms. The armed forces did not mobilize against former president Pérez Molina during the crisis that led to his resignation. In fact, by all accounts they played a constructive role in making sure the president and his supporters adhered to the constitutional process. While no one can guarantee the military will not be politicized in the future, the advances in civil-military relations in post-conflict Guatemala are a positive step toward democratic governance.
The United Nations’s CICIG (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala) will be instrumental in the fight against corruption. The international commission played a crucial role in uncovering the scandal that led to the resignation of President Pérez Molina. The CICIG’s mandate is up in two years and Morales has indicated he would support renewal beyond 2017. However, it is unclear if once in office he will continue to support the vital work the commission has done to strengthen local prosecutors. Given the pressures from civil society and the international community it seems unlikely the new president will want to engage in a debilitating war against CICIG, but if the past is any guide the possibility cannot be discounted.
Another important player will be the United States. Vice President Biden has already indicated the United States’ commitment to the new administration. It is instructive that in the public statement accompanying the vice president’s telephone conversation with Morales the White House emphasized that Biden would work “personally” with the new Guatemalan leader to advance bilateral relations. Biden has been instrumental in promoting the Alliance for Prosperity and pushing former President Pérez Molina to agree to extend CICIG’s mandate. The success of Jimmy Morales and the implementation of long-term economic, political and social reforms are vital to secure U.S. interests in Central America.
Guatemala faces enormous challenges in the coming years from a weak and corrupt judicial system, high levels of inequality, an inefficient tax system which collects the lowest tax revenues as percent of GDP in the Western Hemisphere, police forces incapable of dealing effectively with rising crime rates and the continued presence of criminal networks embedded in many of the nation’s institutions. The awakening of civil society is a positive sign that Guatemalans understand they cannot rely entirely on government to solve the nation’s problems and continued popular mobilization will be essential to achieve long-term reforms.
For good or ill Guatemalans chose a political neophyte to tackle the nation’s problems. Jimmy Morales is an empty vessel into which Guatemalans have poured their hopes for the future. Considering the president-elect’s former profession one hopes that in a few years the joke’s not on Guatemala!
Orlando J. Pérez is Associate Dean, College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences, Millersville University of Pennsylvania, and the author of Civil-Military Relations in Post-Conflict Societies: Transforming the Role of the Military in Central America (Routledge, 2015). Follow him @perez1oj.